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Learning at its Best

Knowing and I Don’t Knowing

As the coordinator for the Detroit Future Schools program, I get to visit 12 classrooms all over the Metro-Detroit area every month. Grades range from third grade up through twelfth. School focuses range from the basics to aeronautics. Class sizes ranging from ten to thirty-five students. I’m learning more right now about schooling and learning (the two are not synonymous) than I did as an undergrad earning my teaching certificate. Every class has a unique personality–a unique pulse–but one thing remains the same…

In every classroom I’ve visited, I hear the phrase “I don’t know.” It is most commonly used in response to a teacher asking a student a question and the student passive-aggressively responding by mumbling, “I don’t know,” shrugging his/her shoulders and at all costs, avoiding eye contact with the teacher.

I eliminated this option for all students in my classroom.  In bold letters on hot neon-colored paper, I taped this slogan for all to see:

“What you don’t know today, you will know tomorrow.”

This slogan, from the start of the school year until about mid-year became the bane of my students’ (and their parents’) existence. Why? Because it meant that when students asked me questions that required just a wee bit of research, my response was THE slogan: “What you don’t know today, you will know tomorrow.” This eventually became decoded by the students. It meant, “Hey–you’ve all got cell phones, books, other people in your lives who can serve as resources–and you’ve got your own experiences to pull from–figure it out and get back to us with what you’ve found.” So, yes, we all don’t know SOME THINGS, but when we really want to know anything, we go out in search of it.

This helped move students in my classroom from seeing themselves as passive receptors of information to co-creators and pursuers of information/knowledge.  They started asking genuine questions quietly to themselves and their peers.  I modeled this for them by genuinely asking questions that, most of the time, I didn’t have an answer for.  Like, “Should the government censor the internet?”  Or, “How do we overcome mental oppression for ourselves and for oppressed communities?”

Sidenote: When a student would respond to a question with “I don’t know,” the whole class, in unison would sing-song THE slogan and I would end it with, “And you’re about to know in a minute…when we all think together.” Then we’d all work really hard to answer the question with our “best collective guess.” Because, as we learned as soon as Pluto was downgraded to a rock, knowledge is fluid.

What we DO know today, we may need to UNKNOW tomorrow.



9 thoughts on “Knowing and I Don’t Knowing

  1. The classroom community response to “IDK” is beautiful. This is both a conceptual and practical post that suggests what we could all do tomorrow to make learning more authentic and communal in our schools.

    What journey brought you to eliminate IDK from your classroom?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 5, 2011, 9:02 pm
    • Hi C–

      That’s a great question. I actually had to think real hard trying to remember when this idea got “incepted.”

      I remember it was my second semester in a Dearborn Public School and I was teaching an English intervention class–I had students who had either failed or were at risk of failing an English class. There was this general attitude of calling one another idiots or laughing at someone if he/she answered a question incorrectly. The students who got it the worst were the immigrant students who struggled with not only the mores of being a teenager in the US but with the English language altogether. It got to a point in class when students just didn’t want to answer anything. I remember out of frustration saying that line, “What you don’t know today, you will know tomorrow,” and a student just looked up from his notebook and said, “That’s so true. I love that!” And I think that’s when it became a thing in my classroom.

      The fluidity of knowledge and need for an egalitarian learning community I learned from a collection of authors including Paolo Freire, Eleanor Duckworth, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade to name a few.

      Thank you for asking me this and allowing me to document my own learning process.

      Posted by ammerahsaidi | October 5, 2011, 10:55 pm
      • Thank you for sharing – I think the “you’re an idiot” culture you describe is encoded in many places in the day-to-day operation of schools. I’m very glad you and your students have persevered in challenging and countering it.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | October 6, 2011, 12:42 pm
  2. Ammerah,

    Thank you for your insights. I suspect a fair number of the students you deal with ‘know’ a lot more than they are willing to admit and use IDK as a way to hide from the gaze of the teacher and their fellow students in what we call “school”. From what little I know about the project(s) you are involved in, perhaps those students will develop the ability to speak of what they truly know.

    Having lived in the Detroit area for 31 years, I would perceive your work to be much more difficult than your post suggests, particularly with regard to language and idiom, culture, religion, the sexes and color. I will say what many are afraid to say out of fear the “PC Police” will descend upon them – this area is segregated. Decades ago, I was a cop in an Eight Mile ‘border town’ and I see little that has changed except for the language used to describe the situation.

    “Color” no longer divides – it is “culture”. The greatest “cultural divide” has been named a “multi-generational culture of poverty”. With its genesis in this nation state’s rather unsavory history of color divisions, the origin of this “culture of poverty” lies beneath clever and “fluid” use of language.

    How do you and yours go about helping students come to understand that ‘fluidity of knowledge’ stems first from having the ‘authority’ to determine what knowledge is fluid, and that gaining ‘authority’ is not at all egalitarian in nature?


    Posted by Brent Snavely | October 6, 2011, 9:40 am
    • Hi Brent–

      You sound like a gentleman I totally must have a cup of coffee with–especially if you’re still in the Detroit area.

      I’m not sure I totally understand your question but it seems that it’s more of an unpacking of my process in my classroom–how do I get the students to understand/own these concepts/practices? Please correct me if I’m wrong. But the way I’d answer the question as I understand it is I talk about the societal hierarchy of knowledge. I believe it was Lisa Delpit’s book, Other People’s Children ( that got me thinking about outright, telling my students that because of their race, history and zip codes, they were at a disadvantage. They would have to fight to get others to value the knowledge and experiences they’ve had and learned.

      One explicit lesson was around grammar. We didn’t call it proper and improper grammar–we called it dominant and non-dominant grammar. We had long conversations on what it means to “speak white” as the students called it. We looked at quotes and analysis of self-hate in minority communities around the world (texts by Malcolm X, Stephen Biko, Martin Luther King, experiments of Clark on black children choosing white dolls, etc).

      I guess to simply answer your question I’d say it was an explicit and unapologetic approach to talking about the world as it is and as it could be (how do we want it to be?).

      Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood anything or been unclear.

      Thank You!

      Posted by ammerahsaidi | October 6, 2011, 2:48 pm
  3. Hello,

    My name is Devon Weaver and I am currently enrolled in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I couldn’t agree more with this blog post. I see to many students answer i don’t know and the teacher never thinks twice about it. I love the slogan ” What you don’t know today, You will know tomorrow”. I have had a few professors in the past that would research my fellow classmates question and have the answer for them the very next day. I really admire a teacher or professor that does that. I enjoyed reading your blog post and thank you for the opportunity to do so.

    Posted by Devon Weaver | October 6, 2011, 11:06 am
    • Hi Devon–

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Although I appreciated professors who took the time to answer my questions, I also appreciated the professors who made me push through my own confusions. They would scaffold me through my cognitive process but refused to give me the answer until I’ve given it my all and failed to see the flaw in my thinking (if I arrived at the wrong answer). One professor was my undergrad linguistics professor. He was flat out one of the toughest professors I ever had but I can’t say I learned more in any other class that year than I did in his. And sure enough, he was terminated a year or two later because students did not appreciate the challenges he laid in front of his students to take ownership of their learning. Students would literally ask him, and funny that I’ve heard this same request in high school classrooms from students–students would ask him to “Just give us the answer. Tell us what you want.”

      I remember loving the authentic learning experiences in his class. Sincerely feeling myself looking straight into my Zone of Proximal Development–the chasm between what I knew and what I wanted to know. So awesome!

      Ok–sorry to ramble but you got me reminiscing 🙂

      Posted by ammerahsaidi | October 6, 2011, 2:53 pm
  4. Hey Ammerah!

    Love the post. It reminded to check back in my notebook from this summer because I remember scribbling down a few thoughts on “I don’t know.” Here’s what I found,

    *Don’t allow I don’t knows! If they don’t know something investigate why! Was the question poorly phrased? Was the student not paying attention? Was there a vocab word within the question they didn’t know? Respond to I don’t knows with questions to figure out why the student does not know. What is the concept that you are struggling with? What are you thinking?

    -Turn to class, does anyone else feel the same way or have the same issue? If multiple people raise their hands then this is a productive response, it has identified a class-wide issue that we can backtrack to and tackle.

    -First step is to seek specificity, locating exactly what they don’t know, then game plan about what WE are going to do about it

    What I really love is that you created a tradition that the students internalized. It’s one thing to know an attitude and drive you want your kids to take on, it’s a whole nother thing to translate that into a digestible and repeatable action that works in the classroom. Well done, I might steal it for my own classroom next year!

    Posted by Brooksy Boy | October 29, 2011, 8:48 am

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