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How Saying” “We Don’t Know” Can Encourage Students’ Creativity

January 27, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

In an article for, Vicki Davis, a full-time teacher and information technology (IT) consultant, muses, “Sometimes I’m afraid our students think that because we have these big textbooks, everything must be in there.”

On the surface, this may sound like a foolish assumption. Everyone knows that not “everything” can fit into one textbook. Of course, there’s always more to learn. Everyone gets that. Right?

Maybe not. After all, we don’t necessarily publicize what a student, or society at large, doesn’t know. If a student doesn’t know something, the traditional goal is to learn it as soon as possible. The educational system focuses on what students know, rather than what they don’t, which is understandable. (It’s certainly much easier to assess them on what they know.) But that means teachers often aren’t given a chance to talk to students about what we, as a society, are still learning … what we don’t yet know. And, as Davis proposes, this can foster the mind-set that there isn’t anything we don’t yet know. It’s all in the textbook, and it’s their job as students to learn it all, as quickly as possible.

Mind-sets like this don’t just squelch creativity and innovation; they turn kids into passive recipients of information. And no wonder, in a world where technology puts answers at kids’ fingertips, doing just as much work to convince kids that there’s nothing we don’t know anymore … because it’s all on Google.

Davis puts it bluntly: “The truth is, some students have been consumers for so long that they really don’t know what it’s like to be a creator or inventor.” If there’s nothing we don’t know, what is there for students to create or invent?

So what can teachers do about it? Here are three activities that expose students to what we don’t know.

  1. Current events lessons

My seventh-grade social studies teacher started each day with a list of five current events stories. By teaching us about what was new, what was just happening, he also taught the implicit lesson that there’s always more to learn. Every day, something new happens, which means that every day, that “big textbook” needs an update.

“Kids should be able to close their eyes and envision all the pages that can be added,” says Davis. And who is going to add those pages? They are. Use daily current events to remind your students that they will be the authors of the “next edition” of the textbook. Better yet, have them compile their own end-of-year class textbook of favorite current events from the year. Their handiwork will serve as a reminder that at the beginning of the year, all these things were “don’t knows” that hadn’t happened yet, that they couldn’t have learned in the textbook—and now they’re part of history.

  1. “I notice, I wonder”

Math teacher Ann Young helps her students analyze complex graphs by “noticing” something about the graph and then “wondering” something about it. This can be applied to any class and any text or content. By sharing their “wonders” with their peers, students normalize what they don’t know. Even when their classmates and their teacher don’t know the answer, that’s a great opportunity to say, “That’s a great question, one that scholars are still asking today. They don’t know either … yet.”

  1. Research the research

Speaking of scholars, assign students to investigate new research currently being conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Google, or other high-level organizations in an area about which the students are passionate. Research studies in progress are a powerful way to show students that “real” scholars do talk about what they don’t know, and they study it until they’ve turned it into something they do.

If students can understand that “real” scholars don’t know everything, either, they’ll realize that “everything” is never learned … which means there’s still room for them to invent something better, discover something new, or add the next chapter to the textbook. Their creativity will blossom as they see that not all the doors of inquiry have been opened—not by a long shot.

When was a time you admitted "We don't know" to your students, and what was the outcome?