You don’t know???
“You don’t know?” Meri asked me in shock.
“You don’t know?” The incredulous look on her face made me laugh.
“Daddy — you don’t know?” she repeated for the third time.
Then she cocked her head in a way only a 9-year-old girl can do, and her face changed from astonishment to a look that said Now I’m going to give you a lecture.
She began. “Dad, every father should know that. I mean, if you don’t know that, what else don’t you know?”
She stopped when she said this, like it was the first time she had considered the idea.
I laughed again, and said, “Actually, there is a lot more that I don’t know than what I do know. Only God knows everything, and even the smartest human being doesn’t know very much at all. That’s why learning is so fun — because it never ends. We just get to keep on learning our whole lives.”
She nodded, so I continued.
“I could explain to you how human beings don’t have wings like birds, but that wouldn’t really answer your question. I could talk to you about science and the law of gravity versus the law of lift, but you’d just ask me why we don’t have wings. I could tell you that God just made us this way, but then you’d just ask why God didn’t make us so we can fly. But the truth is, I don’t really know why people can’t fly.”
After a brief pause to let her process, I began to elaborate, “Do you understand the law of gravity? It’s really interesting…”
“Dad,” she interrupted, “you know when you were reading in Laddie and Little Sister jumped off the fence because she wanted to try to fly?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, you know how I got in trouble because I jumped off the pile of gravel in our back yard when I wanted to fly?”
“Yes, I definitely remember that.”
“Well, I really thought I could fly because there was so much wind, and when I didn’t fly I was really surprised. But the reason I asked why people can’t fly is I wondered why I got in trouble? I mean, when you read last night about Little Sister trying to fly, it made me think that lots of people try this so I wonder why I got in trouble?”
I pondered how to answer this. I mean, how would you answer it?
“Meri,” I said, “I think it really scared me that you could have been hurt. And I didn’t want you to take chances like that in the future. I know it was only a few feet high, but when you jumped and closed your eyes, well, it wasn’t very safe, was it?”
America didn’t miss a beat: “Well, if I could fly it would have been very safe.”
I was stumped.
“Besides, it didn’t hurt when I fell. Grounding me for two days just doesn’t seem appropriate for that.”
When a nine year old goes all official on you and uses the word “appropriate,” it’s time to do something—fast.
Let’s Go Find Out
“Meri,” I asked, “do you want to learn about the laws of gravity and lift?”
“Absolutely,” she said with a big smile.
“Great,” I told her. “But first, let’s go find out why humans can’t fly. I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to learn. Do you want to learn it with me?”
“Yes!” she clapped her hands as I stood and headed to the study.
We asked the question online, then read a physics article on the topic, and a list of children’s answers to this question (the best was that They do fly, haven’t you ever seen an airplane? Duh.).
A website on Rhetorical Questions assured us that people don’t fly because we haven’t needed to, yet.
We had a long talk about that answer.
We even found that there’s a $250,000 prize for the first human-powered helicopter that will stay in flight for over 60 seconds.
Nobody has come close.
When we couldn’t come up with an answer, I told her the scriptures were our only hope since man’s knowledge is limited.
After a short search, we concluded that we don’t have wings because we’re made in God’s image and apparently He doesn’t have wings, either.
“But God flies all the time,” Meri assured me.
We never found the full answer to why humans can’t fly without the aid of machines, but we learned a lot in the process of searching.
The idea that lift overcomes gravity was a powerful thought for Meri – specifically, that there are higher and lower laws.
In the end, Meri went to study her kite better, and I got back to reading. But I found myself thinking about it.
What if I had tried to tell her some pat answer when she first asked?
We would have missed out on so much.
I’m so glad one of my mentors, Cleon Skousen, taught me the importance of saying, “I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re any less,” he told me. “Nobody knows everything. When you don’t know, just say so. It usually leads to learning more.”
Three of the most powerful words we can say as mentors are simply, “I don’t know.”
This is key to helping students learn.
We want them to learn how to think, not what to think, and when they see that we don’t know things it can set up an opportunity to model our love of learning.
This is especially true when we follow the words “I don’t know” with “Let’s go find out. I want to know that.”
This is Great Mentoring
Show them how you go about learning something you don’t know.
Take opportunities to do the research with them.
As a mentor, I’ve always made it a point to give special attention to students who asks difficult or inconvenient questions.
This means they are thinking, and mustering the courage to articulate their thoughts.
The whole point of great mentoring is to inspire the students, and when they are disagreeing, asking deep questions, or standing up for a different viewpoint, they are clearly feeling inspired to take action.
That’s the perfect time to be humble.
The idea that “I’m the parent, or, I’m the teacher, so sit down, be quiet, and follow orders” has a place in discipline, but it must be used very sparingly, if at all, in education, because it very quickly shuts down both inspiration and thinking.
Next time you get the chance to say, “I don’t know,” do it! Then follow up with, “Let’s go learn it! Wow, I just love learning.”
For more ideas on creating a great love of learning environment, see “Core and Love of Learning Seminar Highlights”.
He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.