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Learn to say 'I don't know' and STOP

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There are questions you don’t know the answer to, and for which you know no answer has been revealed. One of the most powerful skills a teacher can develop is the self-control is to say, ‘I don’t know’, and STOP.

It takes a lot of self-control to achieve this top-level teaching skill. Most teachers have never seen it demonstrated, and many may think they’re already doing it. Here’s a typical response to a difficult question in a Seminary or Institute class:

Student: Will women ever get the priesthood?

Teacher: I don’t know, but they could. Women haven’t been ordained to the priesthood, but they act with the authority of priesthood when they officiate in temple ordinances. They can also act with priesthood power in their callings. Women can be presidents of organizations although they can’t have priesthood keys. They serve on ward councils and help with most church leadership. Women are essential to the organization of the church. Plus, women don’t need the priesthood because they already have motherhood. I don’t know why anyone wants priesthood anyway.

Tell me, did you notice the teacher’s “I don’t know”, or were you distracted by the rest?

Consider this response, which I think is better.

Student: Will women ever get the priesthood?

Teacher: I don’t know.

Student: Why not? Why can’t anyone answer this?

Teacher: I know this is an unsatisfying response, and if I had the answer you know I’d give it to you. Unfortunately, I really just don’t know the answer. I have a guess, but it would be just guessing and could still be wrong. I wish I could do better, but the best, most honest answer I can give you is I don’t know.

At this point you may need to help students understand why some questions can’t be answered. The question may call for speculation (Do spirits still possess bodies?) or information that hasn’t been revealed (Why don’t we know more about Heavenly Mother?). Reassure the student that you would give the student the answer if you could, but in your role as a Seminary teacher you can not speculate.

When someone asks questions, you may be tempted provide the plausible explanation someone else shared with you. If you aren’t sure about the answer, say so, and stop talking! It is definitely okay to invite a student to look up information with you and come back to share what they learn. It’s definitely okay to offer to look up ideas or pass along books you have with information for further study. It’s always okay to say you aren’t sure if there’s official information and promise to look it up (as long as you keep your promise).

Don’t speculate while teaching, even if you say clearly that you are speculating. Students will hear the speculation more than the I don’t know, and it may eventually cause a loss of faith. From the GTLH, p 51 “[R]esources should not be used to speculate, sensationalize, or teach ideas that have not been clearly established by the Church. Even if something has been verified or published before, it still may not be appropriate for use in the classroom. Lessons should build students’ faith and testimony.”

It is essential that you resist the temptation speculate. Learn to say ‘I don’t know’, and stop.

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