Embrace The Power Of “I don’t know.”


While binge-watching House MD, I noticed Dr. Gregory House’s frequent and comfortable use of the phrase “I don’t know.” For the uninitiated, Dr. House is the lead character in this medical drama, known for his chaotic tendencies (avoiding clinic work) and unconventional methods (prescribing cigarettes for IBS!). Yet, his genius in medical diagnosis remains undeniable. Despite his expertise, he readily admits his limitations.

Similarly, saying “I don’t know” to my students often elicits mixed reactions. Some express disbelief, others smile, some smirk (perhaps implying judgment), while a few even show awe.

One student would frown and ask if I hadn’t prepared for the class. Another would often smile and offer to help research the topic further. Some would smirk subtly, perhaps implying I lacked knowledge compared to their expectations. However, I also noticed a few whose faces would light up with genuine curiosity, eager to explore the unknown together. These diverse reactions provided valuable opportunities to discuss the concept of lifelong learning, the importance of curiosity, and the shared responsibility we have in the learning process.

It’s fascinating and, frankly, I enjoy it.

I don’t mind being perceived as less knowledgeable by my students. The true lesson lies in the humility conveyed by my “I don’t know.” It highlights the limitations of human knowledge. If students understand this, it suggests they grasp the inherent limitations of humanity itself.

“But you’re the educator, you’re supposed to have the answers!”

Fair point. However, I’m only human, not a walking encyclopedia. I can’t retain every piece of information and provide solutions at all times.

The Value of “I don’t Know” in Learning

Admitting “I don’t know” can act as a powerful catalyst in the classroom. It encourages students to actively participate by questioning, proposing solutions, and engaging in collaborative research. By acknowledging my limitations, I create a space where exploration becomes a shared journey, fostering critical thinking and a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Socrates famously declared, “all I know is that I know nothing.” This powerful statement reminds us that even the wisest among us possess limitations.

Furthermore, I encourage everyone to embrace the comfort of saying “I’m not sure” or  “I don’t know” whenever we come across situations that are beyond our knowledge. We’ve all witnessed, and perhaps even experienced, the pitfalls of excessive confidence that can lead to embarrassing situations. 

Now, let’s look at this from a different perspective. A perspective where it is beneficial for learners. When students feel comfortable saying “I don’t know,” it empowers them to:

Communicate effectively: They learn to articulate their understanding and express their needs clearly, enhancing their communication skills.
Ask powerful questions: Embracing “I don’t know” fosters a culture of curiosity and encourages them to ask insightful questions, driving their learning process.
Embrace a growth mindset: By acknowledging their limitations, they embrace the idea that learning is a continuous journey, fostering a growth mindset and resilience in the face of challenges. And trust me, the growth mindset has been a big theme in education. In pedagogy, we call it life-long learning. 


The ability to say “I don’t know” transcends the classroom, impacting various aspects of life. Confucius, the influential Chinese philosopher, emphasized the importance of humility and lifelong learning with the following: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” This quote resonates with the power of acknowledging our limitations. Embracing “I don’t know” allows us to approach life with a growth mindset, open to new knowledge and experiences, ultimately fostering personal and intellectual development.

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