As leaders in the classroom, teachers are expected to have the right answers. Lacking the appearance of expertise can make them lose credibility and rapport with students—but there are plenty of times when strong teachers at all education levels just don’t have all of the answers.
Though counterintuitive, these moments can be quite advantageous in the classroom. The following are some strategies for how to transition from not knowing something as a teacher to helping students develop the skills to discover and interpret information independently.
Ask clarifying questions
Questions that ask for knowledge, analysis, and application, like those described by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, help students break information down into manageable chunks—which can in turn provide better direction for research and interpretation.
Seeing a teacher model questioning, research, and analysis gives credibility to the general learning process as students see first-hand how to navigate a new topic without prior knowledge.
While teachers often specialize in one subject, there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of subfields for a given discipline that otherwise knowledgeable teachers aren’t very familiar with. A wealth of expertise exists within our local communities as well as online, and teachers can make great use of it by turning the limits of their knowledge into an opportunity for discovery.
It’s also valuable to recognize that our knowledge has limits in the first place, and when that happens, students need to know that the information is out there—and that they can find it if they know where and how to look. Many fields in the sciences, for example, depend on being able to pinpoint what you don’t know for the purpose of doing better research and identifying who to ask for more information.
Be authentic and come back to it later
Sometimes you truly don’t know anything about the topic in question. It can feel like a disservice to students, but clearly telling them you’ll have to do some research to provide good answers can bolster your credibility much more than damage it.
If you return to class newly prepared to address the topic, this shows students that you both care and understand how to use the learning process to become more informed and to share your new knowledge with others.