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You Don't Know What You Don't Know

During my second semester teaching, I had a student who early on challenged me at every step.

I was teaching U.S. History for 9th graders. We were beginning with the period of the Civil War up to modern times. As was the case for many classes at that high school, there were not enough books for both sections of my class to take books home to read. Textbooks had to remain in the classroom. Therefore, valuable class time was often taken up with reading the chapters.

In an effort to alleviate the loss of efficiency, I probably broke many copyright laws by frequently making copies of key sections of the book for the students to take home to read before class. I also created PowerPoint handouts of my lessons and lectures that were meant to supplement the student’s own notes. Some students tended to try to replace their own note-taking with my outlines, so the handouts became incentives that I only gave out if I could see students actually taking notes during class.

Because high school history text books were, and still are, often lacking in diversity and other areas, I tried to supplement what was found in the book with what I thought was interesting information. Some students found it interesting. Many I’m sure did not. One was downright confrontational.

Whenever I would say something that was not in the text book, or was contrary to something she knew about, she would interject,

“That’s not true!”

I was telling them about black cowboys in the west,

“That’s not true!”

I told them how you could order a whole house from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog,

“That’s not true!”

Finally, one day I took her aside after class and we had a chat. Now I could have just focused on the fact that she was being disruptive in class, but I advised her that at this stage in her life, especially when it came to this subject matter, she was in the stage of you don’t know what you don’t know.

I told her I recognized her as an intelligent young woman and that If she listened more and learned more and asked more questions instead of assuming things she hadn’t heard of were false, she would then move into you know what you don’t know. At that stage she could ask even better questions, gain better understanding and then be able to debate what the “experts” said about historical events.

My advice to my student all those many years ago is no less true for anyone at any stage in their life and career.

You will always have opportunities where you know very little about a new subject or an unfamiliar environment. If you are growing as a person, you will continually have periods in your life where you don’t know what you don’t know. Even the best and brightest in one area will be completely ignorant in another.

As a new parent, in a new job, starting at a new school or church, beginning a new sport or hobby, if you are trying something new, you will have things to learn. It is your responsibility to do your homework, your research, ask questions and move through the stages of knowledge and understanding in your pursuit to do your best.

And here’s the scary thing that we need to remind ourselves: we as human beings are really bad at evaluating our own knowledge gaps. We don’t like saying, “I don’t know”, even to ourselves. Therefore, when we are in the you don’t know what you don’t know stage, we will still probably ask the wrong questions or not enough of the right questions.

The key to improving in any new area is to first assume you don’t know. The educator or expert in a situation may seek first to learn what you do know, so she is not boring you with redundant information.

I’m reminded of an exercise in a workshop I took years ago. As Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) would say, even as an educator of quality improvement, I have to “sharpen the saw”. I was looking to learn more about my subject matter and perhaps learn a new style of teaching it. In this exercise, we were to partner up and teach our partner how to drive a car. It was my turn to “teach” and the first thing I asked my partner was, “Do you know how to drive a car?” She said yes, so that moved the conversation in a completely different direction than some of our fellow teams, whose “teachers” went right into their lessons. I as the educator first needed to understand the knowledge level of my student before I went into my “lesson plan”.

That’s the teacher’s responsibility, to not assume and to ask questions. Yet, as the student, your responsibility is to assume you don’t know as much as you might think you know… and to ask questions.

Force yourself to be observant, to ask probing questions and from the answers you receive learn to ask even better questions. Surround yourself with those who are further along in the stages of knowledge and understanding. And when you know more and better, then you can challenge the “conventional wisdom” and contest those things that may be “universally accepted” but wrong.

Ironically, this young lady in my U.S. History class became one of my most engaged students. When she understood that I didn’t dislike questions, she asked more and better ones. When I told my students I was leaving to become a director of a Head Start program, she was one of the students I was most going to miss.

On my last day she surprised me. By this time, I trusted her enough that when she asked to go to the ladies’ room during class, I gave her the hall pass without hesitation. When she was gone for more than fifteen minutes, I was beginning to feel a little let down.

Then she came back to the classroom with a bouquet of balloons, an extra-large card that had been signed by most of the students from my class and some snacks. She had taken the time to get their signatures on the card and store it and the balloons somewhere until she could get out of the classroom to retrieve them. Needless to say, I was very touched. I’m sure there were a few tears. I still have the card.

Now she could have just used this as an excuse to have a party in the classroom, but I’m going to choose to believe it’s because she valued me as a teacher.

In addition to it being a you don’t know what you don’t know example, my personal lesson learned from this was two-fold: as an educator not only must I help students through their stages of knowledge and learning, but what they always need to know is that I believe in them. I cannot expect them to believe me, if I don’t believe in them.

Nadine Owens Burton has been a teacher, a university administrator, a non-profit board member, a director of a school readiness program and is now a Mompreneur. She is the founder and president of Owens Burton Consulting, a quality improvement training and speaking services company. She is currently writing a book based on one of her quality improvement themes: What Color Is Your Imagination? to be published in January 2019. Contact Nadine ( to bring the lessons of WCIYI, The Power of CARE or The Promising Professional to your organization or event.

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