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Transforming “I Don’t Know!”

By Michael Griffin
Transforming “I Don’t Know!”

You ask a question. “I don’t know” (IDK) comes the response. How do you deal with this? Some children respond with IDK pretty much automatically, without thinking. They seem to think that if they do not know an answer immediately then they will not be able to work through a solution. Essentially, they are not thinking. Thinking is hard work. IDK might be a sign of cognitive laziness or even disengagement.

Some students have learned that this response will let them off the hook and the teacher will move on to another student. Some students think IDK excuses them from the further cognitive effort, and so ends their involvement with the learning episode. When a teacher accepts IDK, it shifts the responsibility of learning from the student, where it should be, to the teacher. In the same way, some children have been allowed to believe that the word “sorry” fixes and absolves any wrongdoing, in lieu of consequences.

There are several reasons why students respond with IDK. Perhaps the student is shy. Shy students will usually do anything to avoid public speaking. Susan Jeffers, in her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, says public speaking anxiety can only be overcome by doing it. Our job is to challenge students out of their comfort zone. All students can learn the useful and important skill of public speaking. Speaking in public aids the learning process, empowers, and builds self-confidence. Some students worry their response will be wrong or of poor quality, so they say IDK instead. They are afraid even to have a guess. This could be a mindset issue, as fixed-mindset students, like perfectionists, are less inclined to risk a wrong answer. Fear of failure stymies a healthy attitude to risk, challenges, and mistakes.

Ask the student what they mean by IDK:

  • Why don’t you know?
  • Did you hear the question? Yes? Then please repeat it to me so I can check for understanding.
  • Did you not hear the question? Do I need to speak up or do you need to listen more carefully?
  • Is it the way I phrased the question or a word that I used? Do you need more time to think about this?
  • Is it because of something to do with the topic?
  • Why don’t you understand?

Acceptance of IDK is a sign of low teacher expectation of a student’s capacity. When a student utters IDK, there are ways to salvage the learning experience. We can rephrase the question, or go back a step in the logic, enabling the student to re-engage with prior understanding.

Another tactic is to flip the IDK response. “Well then, tell me what you do know about this.” As a follow-up, and depending on the response, you might say:

  • “You knew more about this than you had me believe.” Or,
  • “Okay, you don’t know much about this topic, yet. Where do you go from here?”

Remind the student that learning is their responsibility. Teachers should not be working harder than the student for that student’s learning. I recommend barring the IDK response altogether. To do this, provide students with metacognitive prompts to replace IDK. This will empower students with the metacognitive language to improve persistence and grit.

  • I am not sure about this question, but I know this…, which is related to your question.
  • I will need more time to think about this, but at present, this is what I think.
  • I apologize. I was not paying attention.
  • I will need to investigate and study this topic further.

Transform IDK into a learning experience. Suggestions like these enable and scaffold better quality thinking, problem-solving, and learning.


Michael Griffin is the author of Metacognition: Teaching Children to Think (2021). He teaches the training course Teaching for Metacognition, which provides practical suggestions for teachers and parents to enhance thinking skills. Michael also teaches professional development for schools on mindset, metacognition, and motivation.

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