The Purpose of Purposeful Ignorance
Using “I Don’t Know” to Spark Student Discovery
Is “I don’t know” the hardest sentence for a teacher to utter? As a history teacher, admitting to not knowing an answer is anathema. After all, what are schools paying us for if we can’t answer student questions? I’ve answered “I don’t know” more times than I can count, but each time I wonder if I’m disappointing the questioner. Asking questions is often an act of courage for students, an attempt to learn something new or to reassure oneself that prior understanding is correct—so when a teacher responds with “I don’t know,” it can be disconcerting. The student is counting on the teacher to know, so what does it mean when they don’t?
By answering “I don’t know,” teachers are modeling purposeful ignorance. Ignorance, understandably, often gets a bad reputation. Willful ignorance, choosing not to know something, is usually pernicious and sometimes even criminal, as when you choose not to read or follow safety instructions and your actions result in an injury. Blissful ignorance, preferring not to learn more about something that makes you uncomfortable, is not as bad, but it can have serious consequences as well. Ignoring the effects of climate change makes it easier for me to go about my daily life, but if everyone pretends that it isn’t happening, the results will be disastrous.
What I call purposeful ignorance is a way of framing curiosity. When I tell a student, “I don’t know,” it is invariably followed by either, “what do you think?” or “how could we find out?” I see “I don’t know” as an exciting invitation to learn more. History starts with questions, and behind genuine questions is a humble acknowledgment of not knowing. Purposeful ignorance is more than just curiosity, though, because so often when confronted with a question, students (and teachers) immediately jump to an answer, just to avoid seeming ignorant. Sometimes this will spur historical thinking, as when a question prompts you to consider historical context and to try to situate the question into a web of things that you do know. For example, if a student asks, “Why did African nations gain independence in the 1950s and 1960s?” knowing that the 1950s were after World War II and that the period was in many ways dominated by the rivalry between the US and USSR should lead to the beginning of an answer.
I see “I don’t know” as an exciting invitation to learn more.
But this is where purposeful ignorance becomes crucial. If teachers, afraid of not having an answer, default to the historical context that they know, they risk giving students an incomplete or a misleading answer. In the classroom, the pressure of time and the need to get through the curriculum combine with the dynamic of teachers being expected to have all the answers. Responding to a student with the first answer that comes to mind may discourage deeper historical thinking. To continue with the example above, focusing on the Cold War context of decolonization would center the story of African independence on Europe and the US, largely ignoring the agency of Africans. Reaching for the available answer rather than pausing to say, “I don’t know precisely, but . . .” leads to a less complete and nuanced understanding at best, or a misunderstanding at worst.
Much of what I’m advocating here applies primarily to K–12 history classes featuring a teaching model that is best described as recitation. Sometimes called a discussion, this style of instruction looks mostly like a teacher asking questions to uncover or check the knowledge that students gained from previous reading. Many instructors have probably experienced this style of teaching and can recognize the feeling of discomfort that students may feel when the teacher asks a question that has an expected answer. This is the situation in which purposeful ignorance is perhaps most helpful, but it can work in other types of classes as well. Teachers who rely on lectures can preface their remarks by revealing the questions that they had to answer as they composed their talk. Doing so not only makes their process more transparent and reveals that the teacher is not all-knowing, but starting with the questions that the lecture will answer provides signposts to students to guide them about what they are going to be learning.
Purposeful ignorance can help encourage creative thinking.
There is another sense where purposeful ignorance can help students: done right, it can encourage creative thinking. As an example, let me point to this essay itself. I am not the first person to argue that ignorance can be helpful or even that it should be taught. In writing this, I initially suspected that the idea was far from original, and as I was reaching the conclusion, a quick Google search revealed that my suspicion was correct. I purposefully did not do this search until I was almost finished writing, however, because I know from my own experience and watching my students struggle to put their own ideas on the page, that if I were to look to see what others had written on this topic, it would have been difficult to craft ideas that were my own. I chose to be deliberately, purposefully ignorant of what others had written, and as a result, I take a certain pride in what appears here, and will more readily and willingly accept criticism of the work.
It may seem odd that a teacher would be advocating ignorance. My hope, however, is that I can provoke a little more empathy between teachers and their students by encouraging the acknowledgment of our limits, and turn not knowing from a source of embarrassment into an invitation to learn.
R. Raoul Meyer teaches high school history and social studies at the Brearley School. He tweets @raoulmeyer.
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