The 3 Most Important Words: “I Don’t Know”

I love listening to podcasts! In fact, I hardly listen to the radio any more. Instead, I plug in my SmartPhone and cruise listening to an episode about comedy, literature, history, technology, and the broader world at large. Most recently, I listened to this week’s Freakonomics Podcast (published for free). If you are unfamiliar with Freakonomics, it was a a popular book in 2009 “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economists Explores the Hidden Side to Everything.”

Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?

What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

How much do parents really matter?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to parenting and sports—and reaches conclusions that turn conventional wisdom on its head. 

Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They set out to explore the inner workings of a crack gang, the truth about real estate agents, the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, and much more.

Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, they show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

The popular book resulted in a lot of conversation about how the world around us works and resulted in several more book as well as a popular website, blog,

Freakonomics, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Freakonomics, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

and radio show. What I love about it is that it’s not just about money (although I’m sure I could use that advice as well), but it explores hidden cause and effect. As a historian, this is my bread and butter.

This week’s topic focused on the power and our inherent fear of “I don’t know.” In fact, they argued that these three words are the most difficult words for people to say. In fact, in our own world we stigmatize a lack of knowledge and, as such, people are hesitant to admit when they do not know information – even when confronted with an unanswerable question! This behavior starts in childhood.

In the world of learning, we know that exploration, challenge, and even failure are our most important tools. As Levitt says, “There’s only one way to learn, and that’s through feedback.” If you think you already have the answers, then you don’t go looking for them. Instead, you must admit when you don’t know something and then work to find the answer! In fact, if you refuse to admit your own lack of knowledge, the consequences can be both financially and emotionally expensive. By refusing to acknowledge a lack of knowledge, we then forgo the process of exploration and learning.

You can listen to the podcast below:

Check out the podcast here or subscribe via the iTunes store here. Next, admit when you don’t know and encourage your students to do the same. After that, “work like a dog to learn.”

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