A bright idea for responding when kids say “I don’t know”

April 12, 2014

in bright ideas: classroom solutions, classroom management

Sometimes an “I don’t know” comes from a child waving his or hand wildly, desperate to be called on, only to be at a loss for words once acknowledged. Sometimes you hear “I don’t know” because the child is shy, embarrassed to talk, or unsure of the answer. And sometimes “I don’t know” is said when a child is frustrated or disinterested and just doesn’t want to engage.

One secret I’ve learned is that kids usually do know something about the topic that they’re willing to share: you just have to jog their memory and help them respond with confidence. If you can get students to say something, you can guide them to figure out the answer.

responding when students say I don't know

So how do you get them talking? I learned years ago from an education professor that an encouraging smile and one simple phrase often does the trick:

If you did know, what would you say?

It sounds like a trick question, but you will be amazed at how well this works! The student is no longer under pressure to come up with a correct response right away, and instead can remove him or herself from the situation and think hypothetically.

Many times, kids will actually respond to you with the correct answer! They knew it all along, but were afraid to say it and second-guessing themselves.

Other times, they respond with, “I dunno, maybe I’d say something about ___” or “I’d probably say ___, but I don’t know ___.” Both of those responses give you valuable insight into kids’ thought processes and give you something to work with. You can then say, Tell me more about that or What else do you know about that? You can also follow up with topic-specific questions, providing some of the missing information or vocabulary the child needs to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Variations on this include:

  • I understand you don’t know. What would you say if you did know?
  • What part do you know for sure?
  • Pretend you had a choice of answers: which one would you pick?
  • What would be your best guess if you did know?
  • What are the possibilities?
  • If you did have an idea, what would it be?

I’d love to hear how you respond when students say “I don’t know”–please share your strategies in the comments. And if you haven’t tried the responses in this post, give one of them a shot with your students this week and let us know how it goes!

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April bright ideas

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 TammyLynn April 12, 2014 at 11:16 am

Great ideas!

I don’t let my students off the hook with “I don’t know” either but I usually just give a ton of thinking time while we wait for them to form their thoughts. These are a great way to help guide them toward confident sharing!

Also, one strategy I’ve learned from GLAD training is to give them think-pair-share time first, which also helps build confidence.

Thanks so much!

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2 Angela Watson April 12, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Great points, TammyLynn! Never underestimate the power of wait time! I also like your tip about allowing students to gain confidence in their answer by talking it over with a partner before sharing it with the whole class.

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3 Susanna April 12, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Oh my goodness! “What would you say if you DID know?” – that is so genius! I am going to try that one on Monday – can’t wait! :-)
Susanna

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4 Angela Watson April 12, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Let us know how it goes, Susanna!

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5 Andrew Pass April 12, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Great suggestions. I had not previously thought of many of these responses but I wish I was still in the classroom so I could try them.

@apasseducation

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6 Harold ship April 13, 2014 at 8:40 am

Clever! I can’t wait to try it on my kidd

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7 Joy Kirr April 13, 2014 at 8:46 am

I’ve heard this from Ellin Oliver Keene at the IRA conference in Chicago a couple of years ago. It inspired me to read her book – TALK ABOUT UNDERSTANDING: RETHINKING CLASSROOM TALK TO ENHANCE UNDERSTANDING. She also has a DVD included with that book and shows one instance of this type of talk. It really gets the kids talking. I’ve tried it with my 7th graders, and they giggle, not knowing if I’m serious or not, and I wait, giving them time. They do come up with answers!

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8 Kellie April 24, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Joy,
I thought of thie same presentation by Ellin! She was GREAT and impacted the way I think about this response from kids. Ellin will be in Skokie this summer, if you are in the area.
Kellie

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9 Charles Szasz April 13, 2014 at 9:40 pm

This is an well-known technique used in therapy.

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10 Andrew April 14, 2014 at 8:06 am

“I don’t know” reveals the assumption that what is expected is a solution or correct answer. In real life, as opposed to testing-dominated school-environments, the process of discovering or inventing a novel solution is more relevant than regurgitating the correct solution.

A possible response to “I don’t know”, based on the guess that the student / child / adult does not have a confident correct answer to give, could be “when I described the situation / problem earlier, how did you think through it?”

Often it is far more useful to understand the steps that precede and led to “I don’t know”. In the role of teachers, it is our responsibility to help our students reveal specifically the limits of their current capabilities.

A step further is to help them help themselves, for example, by asking “What quetions can you ask to help you solve this problem?”

There is certainly no rule that says you cannot answer a question with one or more questions. In real life, that is often the process that leads to novel insights and breakthroughs.

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11 Jana April 15, 2014 at 7:59 pm

I have been using this for a long time now…AND IT WORKS LIKE A CHARM! :-)

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12 Karen M April 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

I respond with “Yes, you do!” if I’ve seen or heard the student comment correctly before. Then I work through the problem with the student aloud to demonstrate and facilitate good questioning and problem-solving steps. :)

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13 Shirley Bush April 17, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Hi. I am a high school World History teacher in Texas. At the beginning of school we were at a faculty development day and learned a strategy about what to do if your students respond by saying “I don’t know.” I believe the seminar was by Laura Motley, but I’m not certain of her name. Anyway, we were told to instruct the students to respond to questions the following way:

What to Say Instead of I Don’t Know:

May I please have more information?
May I please have some time to think?
Would you please repeat the question?
Where could I find more information about that?
May I ask a friend for help?

No teacher that I know of has been able to use this strategy successfully yet. The students do not remember what to say even when we made laminated cards and taped them to the desks. Just giving some feedback to your Bright Idea. :)

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14 Andrew April 17, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Indeed, the ability to ask questions is a fundamental skill that is often neglected. Perhaps the lack of this skill is what the “I don’t know” response reveals?

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15 Marisa May 2, 2014 at 9:14 pm

I LOVE IT!!! I am so using this. I have been teaching for 14 years and have never thought of this. Nice to know I can still learn things.

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16 Carissa Peck May 5, 2014 at 8:41 pm

“It’s OK not to know. What do you think”
or
“What part are you having trouble with?”

I encourage my students to ask specific SMART questions ( http://eslcarissa.blogspot.mx/2014/02/smart-questions.html ) so by asking instead of answering they would still be answering.

For example:
Me: “So what do you think happens next?”
Student: “I don’t know”
Me: “Where are you stuck?”
Student: “Well, if I were her I would cry, but I really don’t know what it would feel like to be locked in the closet. It is hard to say.”

Voila. I got an answer, and the student explained why it was hard for them. It works with math and science too!

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