“I don't know” is one of those frustrating responses that elementary teachers hear almost every day. Often we hear it from kids who certainly do know but they just aren’t saying.
Why do students say these three confounding words? Because…
- They don’t understand.
- They weren’t paying attention.
- They fear being in the spotlight.
- They can’t think under pressure.
And a big reason:
- They think they will be given the right answer instead of thinking for themselves.
When I hear it, I know it's time to back up a bit and apply some strategies to trick – I mean encourage – them to spill some answers.
Overcoming “I don't know”
My first comeback is:
“Well, tell me just one thing you do know.”
Getting students talking about the subject in question often shows that the student does know a lot, but maybe they were lacking confidence or just needed support to talk it out.
Once they start talking, even a little, one idea leads to the next.
If Mr. “IDK” is still at a loss for words, step it up a bit:
“I know you are super smart. Think about it for a little bit and I'll come back to you.”
A whole class of “I don't knows”
What if you get the blank stare from your entire class?
First, use the quick “turn and talk”. Of course we set expectations and practice this activity early on so it can be super quick. A turn-and-talk should take about two minutes, one minute for each partner to share ideas.
During a turn-and-talk I am roaming around clarifying and listening for any misconceptions. Then we circle back around to the question. A lot of times kids just need to process information verbally so it makes sense to them.
Still not getting the necessary answers?
Here's my ultimate process. I call it the “The five R's!”
- Review what you've taught
- Restate the question
- Relate what they know to a partner
- Round the room you go, listening in
- Then… ‘Rap up
(I'm really stretching for that last ‘R'!)
After this process, get your group's attention and say:
“This is what I heard when I went around the room…”
“So what else do you know about the question?”
Answers will be plentiful. Verbal processing can be a very powerful tool.
Don't forget wall support
Your choice of resources that are hanging on your walls can also provide important clues for those kids who need a little bit of a memory jogger to reveal what they know. In the following video I demonstrate my poster for math problem-solving words. These words can really help kids get started on story problems.