Teach like a Freak: The Three Hardest Words

This is the first in what (I hope) will be a series of posts under the umbrella of “Teach like a Freak: How Freakonomics might inform EFL teaching” which is the title of my (10 minute) plenary talk next week at the excitELT Conference. You can see my abstract and those of other featured speakers here. If you are unfamiliar with Freakonomics please see this explanation on the Freakonomics About Page. My blog posts and talk will be based more on “Think like a Freak” than the other books but I might try to draw some insights from the other books and even the podcast. If by chance you are planning on attending the talk I don’t think these posts won’t contain too many spoilers but you might want to stop here and not visit this blog for a week if you are the type that likes to go in fresh.

teach like a freak 2.5
What do you think are the three hardest words in the English language for an English teacher to say? Are they any of the following?

Do it again.
Not quite correct.
I am happy.
Sorry I’m late.
You all failed.
I don’t agree.  
I love you.
Page nine, please.
It’s test time.
I am sorry.
Past tense, please.

While these three word sets could  on perhaps be challenging to say I have three different words in mind. What do you think they are? If it serves as a hint, the words I am thinking of are not only hard for teachers but for everyone.

I was reminded of the importance of these words recently when I was doing a bit of research for the interview with Chris Mares here on this blog. Before purchasing his book  (for the bargain price of 99 cents!) I checked out a free sample through Amazon (by taking a “look inside”) and right there as tip #1 was “Always answer questions.” I think Mares offers good advice about the importance of teachers trying to answer every questions from students. He reminds us students might ask questions for a variety of reasons including actually wanting or needing to know the answer but also because of a desire to be heard or to show off or even to challenge the teacher. Whatever the reason for the question, Mares says it’s imperative to answer students’ questions. I think this is wise advice. He continues on to say that making up an answer or giving a babbling and bumbled response does no good for anyone and that if you don’t know the answer then admitting to this and saying you will find an answer (and actually doing so) is the best course of action. Mares actually gives better more advice than this but for the purposes of this post I will stop there. Check out his book for more on this and other points.

When I first starting teaching I felt the pressure of being the super expert and trying to answer every question whether I actually knew the answer or not. I was afraid of admitting I didn’t know the answer. I was afraid of saying, “I don’t know” (which are the three hardest words I was referring to above).

Looking back on my past reluctance to say “I don’t know” I thought it was the teacher’s job to know all there is to know about the language and how it works. As a result, I gave a lot of shitty and long-winded answers that were not as helpful for students as they could have been. I don’t want to make too many excuses but I think working in Korea where there are sometimes very high expectations for teachers played into this fear.  Also, and somewhat contradictory, there were (and probably still are) so many people (especially “native speakers” of English) working as teachers here that didn’t know much about language or teaching so I felt it was necessary to distinguish myself from these cowboys by giving it a shot when faced with a tough question. When I gave a long and mostly wrong answer I probably did not distinguish myself much and might have even fed into the belief that I was “just another ‘native speaker’” who didn’t know anything about the language.

In “Think like a Freak” the authors detail the negative effects people being unwilling to say “I don’t know.” After this the authors ask, “If the consequences of pretending to know can be so damaging, why do people keep doing it?” The answer is one of the few easy answers in the book, “That’s easy: in most cases the cost of saying, ‘I don’t know’ is higher than the cost of being wrong-at least for the individual.” I think there might be something to this, especially if we change the wording to “perceived cost.” Later Messrs. Duber and Levitt say, “None of us wants to look stupid, or at least overmatched, by admitting we don’t know an answer. The incentives to fake it are simply too strong.” (Levitt and Dubner 29) I think this push to avoid saying “I don’t know” is often a case of both overrating the loss of face as well as misplaced incentives. My sense is that many teachers overate the potential loss of face or student revolt associated with admitting a lack of knowledge or information. Teachers might believe the initial and (probably short-lived) sting of admitting not knowing is worse for them than potentially giving an erroneous response or wasting students’ time. This is to say losing face by saying “I don’t know” seems worse than the potential damage not admitting it might cause. Yet, if teachers have students’ best interests in mind they would probably be more likely to say the three difficult words more readily. I cannot claim to know how often or not teachers say these words but my guess is that it is not very often. 

I think a good first step for teaching like a freak is deciding to say “I don’t know” when appropriate. That is also a “Teach like a Freak” challenge to you, dear reader. The next time you are faced with a tough question and you are unsure of the answer to calmly say, “I don’t know the answer but I think I can find out” and do your best do so. I would be very interested in hearing how this goes for you.

Around eight or nine years ago I decided I was done making things up or hiding from the fact I didn’t know something. In fairness, this timing coincided with when I was learning more and more so it was easier to admit not knowing certain things. After I trained myself to say “I don’t know” more I think I found teaching less stressful. I enjoyed teaching more. Of course I had to remember to follow up and not simply ignore the questions or forget about them. It could be my imagination but I don’t think that students perceived me as any less knowledgeable. In fact,  my suspicion is that students viewed me as more trustworthy especially in later cases when I did end up answering a question. Dubner and Levitt take this a few steps further by writing that occasionally saying “I don’t know” is valuable even if you get sneered at initially because when you say it people will believe you in those cases you choose to make something up. (ibid 48) Unexpected benefits of saying “I don’t know,” perhaps? 

Thank you very much reading. I hope there is something for readers to think about or take away from this post. I will leave the last words of this post to the gents from Freakonmics, “…until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.” (ibid 20)


  1. patricepalmer

    Great post! Several years ago, I was teaching a business English class for well-known, financial company in Hong Kong. A student asked me to define an idiom that she had seen in the local English newspaper. I was unfamiliar with this particular idiom (it was very strange and maybe mistranslated) and I uttered the words “I don’t know”. The HR person had been sitting in these lessons so the next day, I received a phone call from the English Training company that had hired me. I was let go and I knew why! He said he supported his teachers but that there was nothing that he could do. That always stuck with me! I believe that in some cultures, the teacher is “all-knowing”. After that incident, I always gave the long-winded answer. Now back in Canada, if I don’t know something, I say to students “That is a great question. Let me find out tonight so I get the right information”.

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for the comments Patrice!

      I am very pleased you liked the post and I am grateful for you sharing your (sad!) story.This is a nice reminder that “I don’t know” is not always risk free. I think the cultural (and contextual) element is something we cannot overlook so I really appreciate your reminder of this. Thanks again for the comments and also thank you for sharing and following on Twitter. 🙂

  2. robertjdickey

    Agreeing here with PatricePalmer on culture-effect with “IDK”. I’ll say it stronger: “I don’t know” is an admission of failure in lands where students (hence teachers, business staff, and others) were supposed to memorize “The One Right Answer.” TORA. TORA. TORA!

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for the comments Rob. I think you shared a common (all too common?) viewpoint on Korea and the expected roll of the teacher. Well said. Yet, I happen to think am (while realizing contexts vary and I am in a very particular situation) I there is often lots of room for negotiation and discussion and lots of room for teachers to create different roles and defy expectations here and there even in Korea. Of course I don’t want to say that it is always risk free and that culture plays no role.

      Your comments also gave me an idea for a future workshop/blog post/something: How to get away with saying I don’t know in Korea.
      Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: Teach like a Freak: The upside of quitting | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s