‘I dunno’: Getting out of a hole in class

Our good hosts WordPress tell me this is my 100th post on this blog. It therefore seems like a good point to reflect on the stuff about which I can’t string together 500 words. Particularly, in light of my previous blogs on some core skills (here and here), it might be useful to think a bit about those occasions when you don’t know the answer.

Part of the anxiety that new colleagues often feel is the sense that they have to know everything, so that they can answer any question that’s asked of them. This probably comes from extrapolating their own experience as students, where they asked questions of their teachers, who provided some kind of answer, which – in the mind of the person – means they could answer any question.

This is – obviously – unrealistic. It’s also unnecessary and possibly even counter-productive.

Let’s think about how you can respond to a question to which you don’t know the answer.

First option is to bluff. This is what I used to do when I started out: I still recall being asked about what voluntary export restraints were, to which I responded that they were non-binding agreements to limit how much gets imported to other countries.

This is not a good option. Quite aside from potentially misinforming students, it is actually a pretty transparent tactic and undermines students’ confidence in everything you say. Remember how you can see everything that students do in class? Well, they can see when the moment of blind panic descends upon you and you starting blustering. So don’t do it.

Likewise, the second option of dismissing the question out of hand – “that’s not the issue here” – isn’t a good one either. Student questions are a key vector for understanding how they are processing the information you are giving them, so the simple fact of the question being asked is important. So you’ll have to engage with it.

The next option is to push it out of the class. This makes sense when it’s completely off-topic, but its rare that there isn’t some connection, so much caution is needed. But it might be that you simply don’t have the necessary resource to answer the question then and there: in that case, you need to remember to share the answer with the rest of the class. I’ve posted answers to questions asked on our VLE, which seems to be helpful as a means of spreading the information.

The more confident options are two-fold.

One is to admit you don’t know the answer. If it’s a matter of factual knowledge, then you can circulate the answer as above, but if it’s more one of interpretation then it’s more tricky. In those situations, working from first principles can often provide a solution, but there is the danger of bluffing once again. Whatever it is, the key thing is to not leave it unresolved: you need to close the loop of the question. Students can respect that you don’t know it all, but they will not respect you not bothering to find out the answer. That might be an email, or a VLE post, or a short bit in the next teaching session, but you need to come back to it somewhere.

Alternatively, you can turn it back to the class. “That’s an interesting question: what do you think the answer is?” It’s a classic technique, and for good reason. Learning is about the student, not the teacher, so by pushing it back to them you are putting them front and centre in the process.

This shouldn’t be done meanly – “you sort it out” – but in a spirit of collaboration – “let’s work it out together.” My personal experience is that students’ contributions often trigger some distant memory in me, which allows me to (finally) add something useful.

We are lucky to work in a discipline where there is much space for contestation and interpretation. If we want to communicate that to students, then somethings it’s good not to have the answer: we are not trying to make them into clones of us (I hope), but rather self-supporting critical thinkers. In that sense, what we as teachers do and don’t know is not so important. If we can accept that, then we can also start to accept that not only can we not have all the answers, but also that we should not give all the/our answers to students.

2 thoughts on “‘I dunno’: Getting out of a hole in class

  1. Whilst the wall of laptops in lectures does drive me nutty on occasion, it is very useful sometimes when I’m lecturing on a technical topic like the EU. Sometimes they’ll ask me a very specific, factual point about what an institution’s competence is and I won’t know the answer, but I can ask one of the members of ‘NASA HQ’ to google it for me. Typically whatever they find will require some interpreting anyway, so I don’t feel as though it puts me out of a job!

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