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The Many Meanings of “I Don’t Know”

“I don’t know” is a common answer to a variety of questions, when I talk with teenagers and their families about college and education.  What I’ve come to learn is that “I don’t know” has a different meaning, depending on the question.

  1. “I don’t know” in relation to a college admissions essay prompt may be a request for greater guidance, since the Senior may need more understanding of what information is being requested.  Also, the introspection required to write a meaningful college essay takes time and may be more stressful, than originally anticipated, given their already busy schedule in the Fall of their senior year, so the “I don’t know” is actually a request for more time to think through their answer.
  2. An “I don’t know” response, when asked about a particular major or academic interest often is accompanied by that emphatic, and somewhat annoyed tone that teenagers tend to muster, simply because they aren’t sure how to begin the process of considering their interests.  Parents’ and students’ willingness to engage in a series of conversations is helpful, as no answers need to be stated immediately–even as students are filling out the application.
  3. “I don’t know” from a parent about their ability to afford college is usually a request for more information.  Answering questions like, “What are the actual costs of a year of college?  What would I be able to spare in my budget each month?  What does my student already understand about money and its value, so the multi-thousands of dollars college will cost is meaningful and in the proper perspective for my teenager?” will help the family make confident decisions about college.
  4. “I don’t know” as an answer from a teenager about a math problem or their next english assignment, can mean: a lack of understanding the concept(s), a lack of organization and management of due dates, a conflict with the teacher’s personality or some combination of all three.  Teens and their parents often can opt for the first meaning–a lack of content understanding–to employ tutors; just as often, I hear long explanations about what the teacher’s not doing in the classroom, so therefore, is the difficulty in learning the material.  Only with a sustained inquiry can the parent and student address the issue.

Stopping at the first “I don’t know” usually doesn’t give the information needed to help the student and the parent resolve the issue.  As uncomfortable as questions can be, the more the student and parent probe, the greater understanding of the actual issue is created, so a reasonable, sustainable strategy can be implemented to overcome any challenge.