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.
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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