Derailing "IDK"

Helping students articulate questions and uncertainties.

By: Rebecca Kordatzky

I have never been in a train wreck, but I have been in chaos created during a class discussion when a student sullenly mumbles, "I don't know." Lesson derailment! Disastrous emotional derailment! Let's investigate the crash site. What? Why? How?

What? As the lesson collapses like a house of cards, my shame, confusion, and guilt swirl ruthlessly. "I must not be a good teacher." "...  a challenge to my authority." "My lesson / teaching lacks clarity." "...  a play for power and control." "DISRESPECT!" "A good teacher could smooth over this situation." Remember— emotions are not right or wrong; they exist. The key— find a different perspective.

Why? Why might a student use that response, not meaning disrespect? Are there logical, understandable reasons? Yes, after setting aside my hurt feelings, I can think of many. Students also become overwhelmed due to stress, social pressures, lack of sleep, insecurities, or hunger (just to name a few).

The key? Determine not to take that response as a personal insult even if it was intended that way. This helps avoid derailment and remain confident in one's purpose. That confidence frees a teacher from the emotional confusion or resentment that threatens to erupt when we hear "IDK." Thus, I can strategize and use alternative pathways to the goal. I will simply move to a different set of tracks, but keep moving forward.

AMLE talks to Rebecca Kordatzky about "IDK"

How? I can't guarantee the elimination of "IDK." But, as a responsible adult, leader, and teacher, I have a wide range of options for maneuvering the community and environment in room 205 and minimizing the mumbled challenge of, "I don't know." These five reflection questions may help re-chart one's course:


What is my goal for having this discussion?

Know the desired discussion outcome(s). Is the promotion of deeper thinking the goal? Is it to check clear student thinking? Is debate the goal? Do I want students to end up with the right answer? If I want them to regurgitate what is in my brain, I need to use a 'tell and memorize' instruction. To save headaches and frustration, don't use a discussion if the purpose doesn't align with the instructional strategy.

Make sure discussion questions are clearly designed. Essential and authentic questions ring true with students and give me confidence to keep probing. To be even more flexible, I keep a readily-accessible copy of Bloom's Taxonomy levels and corresponding verbs on my podium (where they can't get buried). I strive to give myself the luxury of strategic questions prepared that appeal to multiple intelligences and learning style preferences.

Is my classroom a safe environment?

  • I love to create win-win situations. For example, I might say, "Sean, before we grade this assignment, what is one answer on your homework that you are not completely certain about? … are confident of? … didn't understand at all?" Or, "Before we get started, each of you put a star next to one of the answers you are proud of and a question mark next to one you are less sure of." Now share with a shoulder-partner / small group created in their vicinity / row / table. Then, if whole class sharing is the goal, I might say, "Sean, what is a question you had or someone in your group had?" I love how this sets up learning. When students are curious, they pay closer attention and think deeper.
  • Safe questions are engaging. For example, "Beth, which item are we going to start with —one you know or one you are curious about?"
  • Use a multitude of sharing strategies. I love using think, pair, share and call on a student, "Share a neighbor's idea or response that caught your attention." And, of course, the phone-a-friend can be very effective.
  • Use carefully chosen words. A loud shout-out for Bloom's Taxonomy graphic / verb list. I also love the challenges by Peter H. Johnston in Opening Minds and Choice Words. If I say, "Good question," I imply that there are also "bad" questions. Using the label "smart" leaves way too much room for the opposite label - "dumb."
  • Clearly communicate goals. Students find safety when the teacher has clearly stated goals. Knowing the expectations and intended outcomes provides students with a vision and purpose for their work.
  • Patience. A powerful response to "IDK" is to seek clarification. This may often involve asking three or four follow-up questions. Offer several guesses about what may be causing the uncertainty or confusion. Rephrase and provide "think time" for a response.

Is this a safe community where everyone participates?

Work diligently to establish and maintain procedures that ensure fairness, community, and safety. One of my basic premises is, "In room 205, everyone is an equal partner in learning. When I call on you, it is your turn to talk." A basic tenet of being human is the need to be noticed, heard, validated. Students need to know that I really care about each of them and really listening to them is a powerful start.

I intentionally use multiple strategies to teach my expectation that "everyone participates" while also contributing to a safe environment and encouraging curiosity. Since intermittent reinforcement creates the strongest learning, I plan to be random (an oxymoron?). Try one of these:

  • Slow down and increase my wait time to allow students more think time. Because of increasing curriculum time pressures, I am often tempted to push through. If I jump in with the answer, what learning has taken place?
  • When beginning a discussion, I make sure students have some type of answer available by providing time for students to think and record responses. They need to feel safe, not threatened.
  • When looking for multiple responses, I play Bingo, "Everyone in the third row" or "four corners" or "3rd body across the rows." Sometimes I tell students the plan while other times I keep it to myself.

Do I teach acceptable ways to express uncertainty?

A logical place to begin is by accepting an accurately constructed statement of uncertainty. When a student says, "I am not sure; I don't know." I may respond—"That is a logical response. You have just expressed an honest concern." When a student indicates uncertainty, I ask more questions to look for specific areas of possible misunderstanding. I offer other questions they may have.

Asking questions takes courage so acknowledge that courage. Use body and facial language; give a nod, a smile, wait patiently. Remember, you are watching courage in action. View an honest question with joy because learning is in process!

Embrace uncertainty. Since creativity is very high on my agenda, students quickly learn that a fanciful answer will elicit a laugh rather than a scolding. The consequences do not change but the mood does.

Own your responsibility for student momentum. It is extremely hard to ask a clear question when 'I'm not sure what I don't understand'. As the professional, it is my duty to probe until I find the nugget my student needs. Students learn to be patient until I can find their real question.

Am I celebrating questions, curiosity, and risk-taking?

Asking questions is a sign of engagement. Learning takes place after a question.

  • Acknowledge questions with comments like, "That is a very logical question" or "Thank you for asking that question."
  • Incorporate discussion prompts or open-ended questions throughout activities including class starters or tests. Students then learn to respond to this type of thinking in various situations.
  • Reinforce a growth mindset. The work of Carol Dweck is inspiring. Watch her TED talk—"The Power of Believing That You Can Improve" and then incorporate "yet" into conversations with students.

And what of our derailment investigation? The excitement of exploration and the contented assurance of learning are free to drive the train when teacher and student are not trapped in fear, uncertainty, and frustration. All aboard!

Rebecca Kordatzky is an education coach and tutor at Bec's Basics in Milton, Wisconsin.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2016.

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