“I don’t know.” It’s a common response from students, particularly on those days when I make a point of calling on students who are avoiding eye contact and trying to hide behind someone. And I will start by saying this: It’s OKAY to not know. The tricky thing is trying to assess the reason for the “I don’t know.” Sometimes they know a bit, but can’t synthesize it or articulate it. Sometimes they know a bit, but not enough. Sometimes they know, but don’t know they know! In any case, here are a few of the ways I try to stretch that ubiquitous response out of the realm of a shoulder shrug and into the realm of critical thinking and metacognition.

“If you DID know, what do you think you would say?”

“Tell me one thing that you do know.”

“How could you think through it?”

“What questions could you ask to find out?”

“What are some of the possible answers?”

“What part of it do you know?”

“Where are you stuck?” / “Which part are you struggling with?”

I picked up the first one at a workshop (about something totally different) several years ago. It seemed ridiculous to me at the time, but students actually respond to it!

Other times, I might tell a student that I will take some other ideas while he or she thinks about it more. Some students just need a bit more time to consolidate the information. Sometimes a student can better synthesize and formulate a response after hearing it in the context of what other students are thinking.


But again, sometimes students really don’t know. We have to allow students to be comfortable saying they don’t know, because that is clear feedback for us as teachers. As Confucius and Socrates have suggested, knowing what you don’t know is really important. And from there, we can use our thinking and questioning skills, our research strategies, and our networks to practice the ultimate skill: how to learn. So another important response to have in your repertoire is, “Okay. How can we figure it out?”

If you are hearing a lot of “I don’t know” in your class, you might want to give your students some actionable ways to respond instead. You can also download a free poster with some prompts here.

How often do you hear “I don’t know”? What strategies do you use to coach your students forward?

Responding to “I don’t know”
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One thought on “Responding to “I don’t know”

  • 25. April 2016 at 14:56

    I love this! I’m definitely sharing this on my Pinterest boards. What a great way to guide students in learning that there’s more than just knowing and not knowing. There’s so much in between 🙂


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