The power of ‘why’?

When a student says ‘I don’t know’.  I always ask one question; ‘Why?’

This is a blog post that I have been meaning to write for ages.  This morning, I read @teacherhead’s blog on The Power of Questioning. I have also used the work of @doug_lemov and TLAC in my classroom.  I agree, we shouldn’t allow opt out.  But, I love the phrase ‘I don’t know’.  It is often the best response in the classroom.  It isn’t always an opt out at all.

As well as being shorthand for ‘opting out’, sometimes students say ‘I don’t know’ and when I say ‘Why?’ its because they don’t understand the question.  So, I reword it. Quite often, when faced with ‘I don’t know’, teachers assume that the student needs more information or the question rewording in a more simple way.  But often, that isn’t what they are saying at all.

This summer, I was discussing Animal Testing with my Year 9 class.  I asked the question  ‘Should we ever test on animals?’ Well trained in the principle of Think Pair Share, they had a chance to rehearse their ideas with a neighbour and then we started a discussion where I would Cold Call people for their answer.  There were lots of times in our discussion where the students would say ‘I don’t know’…

Charlie said, ‘I don’t know’.  I asked ‘Why?’, and he said ‘Because I think I need some more information about why we would test on animals?’  We were then able to expand the discussion and I provided some statistics to help him make a decision.

Ellie said, ‘I don’t know’.  I asked ‘Why?’ Because ‘I can see both sides of the argument’. ‘Go on’, I said.

George said, ‘I don’t know’. I asked, ‘Why?’ ‘Because I think I need another minute to think about it. It is a hard question’.   We then decided that we needed a table of strengths and weaknesses on the board to help everyone.  George helped to write it. And at the end of the lesson I came back to him to ask his opinion again.

Rachel said, ‘I don’t know, I thought I did, but then I heard what Gemma and Niamh said, and now I am not sure’.  ‘Why?’, I said.

But then, I called on Emma (a student new to the school, I had never taught her before).  She shrugged her shoulders, and said ‘I don’t know’.  But it sounded different to the other, ‘IDK’s. It was unwilling and recalcitrant.   The class tangibly bristled.  They knew what was coming next.  ‘Why?’ I asked, encouraging.  She shrugged, ‘I don’t know’.  My response is the same – ‘Why don’t you know? – What is it that you don’t know?’ I waited, to give her time.  She was silent.    So I asked her ‘If you aren’t sure, who has had the best argument so far? I smiled, again.  I waited.  She answered; briefly, but she answered.  I asked ‘Why? She started the conversation, she gained confidence. I thanked her.  We moved on.  Later, when the class were working on something, I spoke to Emma and explained that I really valued her opinion and we established that she was concerned about getting it wrong, or looking stupid, so, it was easier to say I don’t know.  But also, and for me, more importantly, she was not used to having to think hard.  She was not used to having to work out the advantages and disadvantages of an issue and come to a conclusion for herself.  She had been allowed to ‘opt out’ of thinking.  That is never allowed in my classroom.  In our conversation, I encouraged her, I knew she had opinions.  I knew she was confident. She spent the rest of the lesson arguing her point, debating and discussing with others; confident in her opinion and that what she had to say was valuable.

I love ‘I don’t know’.  It tells us so much.  But I only ever follow with one question…


3 thoughts on “The power of ‘why’?

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