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Friday / September 22

Four Responses to “I don’t know.”

The dreaded IDK. We’ve all been in the situation when a question is posed and we hear crickets in the classroom. Students look at us like we’re from Mars. How we respond in this moment determines who’s going to carry the heavy load of thinking. When you find yourself in that moment, here are four things to consider:

Resist the temptation to spoon feed

It’s natural to assume when a student doesn’t respond to a question that it’s because the question is too hard or she actually doesn’t know. However, simple silence could mean a variety of other things. None of the reasons listed below for an “I don’t know” response warrants additional instruction or excessive cuing to scaffold for students. Our go-to reaction to non-response or shrugged shoulders is often reteaching. Consider some of these alternates so students can engage with content at the highest possible level using minimal support.

Reason for IDK Strategy Comments
Student didn’t hear the question Repeat the question Restate the question exactly the same way as it was asked the first time. Many times teachers begin to give too many hints when repeating questions, therefore lowering the cognitive demand for students.
Student didn’t understand the question Rephrase the question at the same level. Or ask if there’s a word they need to have defined. Q: What strategy did you use to solve the problem?

1.       Do you know what I mean when I ask for a “strategy”?

2.       How did you solve the problem?

Student is thinking WAIT Wait time is often the best prompt. You might confirm the student needs wait time by asking “Do you need some time to think?”

Provide wait time for everyone before you even call on a student. That way the attention on one student isn’t so uncomfortable

Student is not confident Use a student talk protocol like turn and talk. Listen in on the conversation of a shy student. Ask his permission to call on him to share, and then stay close to him as he gives his response to the class. Proximity can be reassuring for shy students.
Student is accustomed to getting more clues so she’s waiting the teacher out Break the pattern of over-prompting Be prepared with several responses if you think the students are waiting you out. Remember that if you’re uncomfortable with the silence, they probably are too. WAIT.


Instead of “I Don’t Know” Anchor Chart

Brainstorm with students a list of responses they can provide that supports learning instead of IDK. Post these in an anchor chart in your classroom so when students try to shrug their shoulders or avoid engaging in the learning, you can cue them by pointing at the chart and offering alternate solutions.

Connie Hamilton

Provide Encouraging Responses

Creating a classroom where students feel safe to take risks doesn’t happen without some purposeful efforts on the teacher’s part to create the culture. How we respond to students when they don’t know an answer says a lot about whether we value learning or just the right answer. Accessing the student’s thought process helps the teacher determine if the student lacks confidence, was disengaged, has a misconception, or is really lost on a particular concept. When we focus on the thinking behind the answer and celebrate engagement and effort, the students are less likely to be self-conscious about not knowing the right answer right away because they know learning is messy and often takes work and time.

These prompts help students organize their thinking but don’t dummy down a question or begin to answer it for the student:

  • What would you say if you did know?
  • What can you rule out?
  • What are you thinking so far?
  • Think aloud. Let us hear what your brain is processing.
  • Tell us what parts you’re sure of and what parts you’re still working through.
  • What part has you stuck?

Hold the Student Accountable

What if the student really doesn’t know? Teachers who resist the temptation to spoon feed might use a strategy like “phone a friend” or ask the class, “Can someone help Paul?” While these strategies are almost always successful in revealing the answer, they seldom hold the original student accountable for communicating the answer. A more accurate description of these approaches would be “pass the baton” or “Can someone answer for Paul?” If peer support is used, encourage the helping peer to look and speak directly to the student who needs help, not the teacher. Then, after the exchange of help from peer to peer is done, repeat the question to the original student. “Now that LaToya has helped you, let’s hear your thinking, Paul.”

This sets the tone in the class that the teacher is attentive to filling learning gaps for the student who needs it and isn’t simply looking for someone – anyone, to give the answer. Once this is established as a routine for how “phone a friend” works, you’ll also see an added benefit of students’ listening skills sharpening.


Using “I don’t know” is a learned behavior students have come to master throughout years of classroom interactions. They are often successful in avoiding struggle when content doesn’t come easily for them because many times giving an IDK response will either prompt the teacher to call on someone else or make the question easier.

We dummy down learning opportunities when we assume an “I don’t know” or student silence requires cues, reteaching, or lowering the level of question. Before jumping to a remediation, verify there isn’t some other reason for a lack of response, give students ways to articulate what is interfering with their ability to answer a question, support a growth mindset culture through encouraging students to take risks, and hold students accountable for responding and engaging in the learning. Using these four approaches might reduce the number of times you hear “I don’t know” as a first response from students.

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Written by

Connie Hamilton Ed.S. has served the education profession for more than twenty years as teacher, instructional coach and administrator. She currently serves as curriculum director in Saranac Community Schools and provides series of professional learning workshops for districts across the country. Connie’s passion is questioning and coaching leaders to better support their most valuable school assets: teachers. As the founder and moderator of #TMchat, @conniehamilton is a connected educator and exemplifies the habits of a lifelong learner and servant leader.

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