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Teaching Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized   |   Apr 12, 2014

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

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

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

By Angela Watson

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.

A bright idea for responding when kids 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!


For more bright ideas from 150 different bloggers, please browse through the link-up below and choose a topic that interests you. What makes this link-up unique is that none of these posts have products or printables of any kind, just practical classroom solutions. The grade levels for each are listed in the post titles. Enjoy!


Plus over a hundred more posts! Click to see the link up!

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. 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!

    1. 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.

  2. 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! 🙂

  3. 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!

    1. 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.

  4. “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.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Andew. I especially like your point about answering questions with questions, and asking kids to explain how they thought through the question you asked.

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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. 🙂

    1. 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?

      1. Thanks for sharing this, Shirley. I have heard those strategies before but am not aware of any teacher who has implemented them.

        I think trying to get kids to stop saying “I don’t know” is like getting kids to stop saying “uh-huh” or “like” or “yeah.” It’s just part of our vernacular. I say it myself a bunch of times every day. So I don’t mind when kids say it…I just take it as chance to push their thinking a bit. 🙂

  7. 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.

  8. “It’s OK not to know. What do you think”
    “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!

  9. I tried the suggestions posed here as I often hear the dreaded “I don”t know”.
    To each of these excellent questions, with the exception of, “If you did have an idea, what would it be?” was, “I don’t know”. The exception question was answered: “Skippy Jon Jones Lost In Spice !”. I would be very open to more suggestions as the dreaded “I don’t know” is threatening to take over the world as we know it.

    1. LOL! Thanks for reporting back. Maybe considering rephrasing the question, or scaffolding the learning a bit? It’s also possible the kids haven’t yet internalized that it’s okay to be wrong. Maybe they’ve been mocked in other classes or by other students for incorrect guesses and need to feel more comfortable taking risks in what they share with the group.

      Or maybe there are deeper issues here. Kids who continue to say I don’t know and give ridiculous answers are often displaying defiant behaviors or are resistant to learning. I think you are correct that the tips in this post won’t work well in those cases–they’re for when kids genuinely don’t know or are shy or unsure of themselves. If kids aren’t interested in participating or learning, I would address those issues first, because they’re the root cause. The “I don’t know” issue is just the symptom.

  10. What a good idea! I usually start with think-pair-share, so that students have discussed their answers privately before saying in front of the class. If they still say, “I don’t know”, I ask, “Would you like for me to ask you later?” or “Would you like to ask a friend to help?” I like your idea better though, because it requires the student to take what they do know, rather than working solely from what other kids say.

  11. Hi Angela, thanks so much for sharing your tips and tools. I’m currently a student teacher in a first grade classroom and I have a student in the class who replies with “I don’t know” most of the time, even though students turn and talk with a partner. This pin came up on my Pinterest board yesterday and I couldn’t wait to try it. Today, I was able to use it and it really works!!! He was able to give a response!!! Thank you :)))

  12. I know this may sound confrontative but it can also be important to be able to say, “I don’t know”. One child I knew would never say, “I don’t know”, making up outlandish responses. As I got to know her mother she was the same; she could never admit to not knowing something. She would rather make things up or more often speculate wildly than say, “I don’t know”. It was particularly problematic when it came to understanding others. I understand that sometimes kids need encouragement to offer their ideas, thoughts, feelings but helping children to understand when it is important to say, “I don’t know” is equally valuable.

  13. A young ADHD girl I’m working with, had been asked by the school about new year and a new start as he r behaviour was a little disruptive. She was at risk of absconding and all sorts. I mentioned to the support person that maybe she couldn’t actually understand what was being asked of her.
    Working with horses we looked at their fresh starts, some of our horses had been abandoned, cruelly treated and had come to us for a new start.
    We asked the young girl about what that looks like through the horse’s eyes, we had lots and lots of words such as scarey, worried, apprehensive etc and she came up with I don’t know. Instead of tackling her I praised her (much to her surprise). I said yep if I was that horse I wouldn’t know what to expect either. She then proceeded as to other things that the horse would not know,
    ‘I don’t know how to trust’
    ‘I don’t know if I will be fed’
    ‘I don’t know if someone cares’
    Job done!

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