Fostering Independent Learners #1: Responding to “I Don’t Know”

Right now, I’m finishing teaching this online class where we discuss strategies to engage learners.  It’s interesting because the class is structured to cater to K-6 teachers, but I find the strategies can be used K-12.  One of the first nuggets of teaching wisdom I came across was how teachers should respond when students respond to a question with, “I don’t know.”  How many times have we heard that in a classroom?  How many times have we let students off the hook because they’ve told us that they didn’t know something?  Should they know?  All of these questions are important because it should guide what we do for students.  Remember, our goal is to teach them, and their response to our questions, if structured effectively, should help them to demonstrate their understanding.  I don’t mean that the questions should be “leading” questions, which are not really effective, but the questions should be structured in a way so the teacher can note that the student understands the material.

In responding to the “I don’t know” response that we get from students, Rose-Duckworth and Ramer (2009) state that we should respond by using the following follow up questions and statements:

  • “If you did know, what would you say?”
  • “Ask me a question that would help you understand.”
  • “Pretend you do know and make something up.”
  • “I don’t know means you need more time to think-listen to others and I’ll come back to you.” (Then make sure you do.)
    (pg. 11)

Think of how this would change the students’ thought process.  Too many times, I’ve witnessed teachers letting students settle for mediocrity.  If that’s not the expectation, then we can’t accept it.  The same goes for those of us who lead educational institutions.  If leaders want their teachers to be great, what should they have in place to ensure all teachers will continue to be great?  As Principal Kafele would ask, “What evidence do you have?”  Great institutions are great because they have the structure of support in place along with high expectations.  Great classrooms are the same way.  Let’s work to increase our capacity as teachers and build the capacity of our students.  If the goal of an education is to prepare students for the real world, as many educators cite in their responses, then it’s important to structure teaching and learning in that manner.  In the real world, “I don’t know,” is not an acceptable answer.  As adults, we have to figure it out.  Students should have that same responsibility.

Let’s be great today.  Young people are counting on us.  “I don’t know” if you will change a life today, but I’m certain that you will figure it out.

With #2185Pride and #CougarAccountability,

Dr. G.

Rose-Duckworth, R. & Ramer, K.  (2009).  Fostering learner independence.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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