It’s time to kick the IDK bucket

Students say “I don’t know” all too often, and some teachers call them out for doing so. Now, we can kick the IDK bucket. Connie Hamilton explains in this excerpt from Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom.

The Problem: Students use “I don’t know” responses as a way out

No matter the reason, IDK answers are a problem in the classroom. Accepting them as responses only magnifies the problem. Students learn that if they wish to avoid effort or risk, the ticket is “I don’t know.”

Sometimes these words are stated explicitly. Other times, they offer dead silence, leaving the teacher wondering what to do next. Wait it out? Move on to someone else? Offer a hint?

What makes this problem even more complex is that we are often unsure of why students are unwilling to take a risk and engage in thought.

Click image to learn more

Some are so automatic in their responses that we wonder if they really do not know how to respond, or are just shy, or are actively disengaged. Matching our reaction to the reasoning behind a student’s IDK allows us to react appropriately—and control who is holding that cognitive baton.

The Hack: Kick the IDK bucket

We set ourselves up to kick the IDK bucket by identifying the root cause for the “I don’t know” response. You see, we cannot assume that IDK means the student really does not know something.

Sure, that’s a potential trigger, but it isn’t the only one. Each reason has a different solution.

Creating a classroom where students feel safe about taking risks doesn’t happen without purposeful efforts by the teacher to create the culture.

The careful pairing of problems with counteractions will send the IDK bucket to the graveyard. Picture a cognitive baton. Your key to reducing the number of IDKs in your classroom is to keep the cognitive baton in the student’s possession. The person holding the cognitive baton is the person doing the most mental work.

Why are the students trying to rid themselves of the cognitive baton? One reason is that many students have come to believe that the game of school is about knowing answers. The narrative on this must change.

Students do not have to know the answers. They just cannot be satisfied with not knowing them. In short, IDK should be a rise to action, not an end result. We need to see this as a starting point, rather than a final answer.

There are bound to be underlying reasons why they are unwilling to take a chance. “I don’t know” is safe from the risk of being wrong. It does not require vulnerability. It does not draw the spotlight. No easy, one-size-fits-all answer exists here.

Facing an IDK situation does not trigger one specific formulaic procedure for overcoming it. We have to consider multiple reasons why a student might be avoiding answering or giving a wrong answer.

When students can identify the root cause of their IDK, and find a way around it, they are one step closer to removing the barriers that are delaying their understanding.

Creating a classroom where students feel safe about taking risks doesn’t happen without purposeful efforts by the teacher 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 reasoning for the IDK helps the teacher determine whether the student lacks confidence, was disengaged, has a misconception, or is really lost on a particular concept.

What You Can Do Tomorrow

Use a physical object as your cognitive baton. Use a ball, stuffed animal, or actual baton to designate a speaker. I use an actual cognitive baton or a think stick. Having students hold an object when they have the floor provides a visual and kinesthetic reminder that it is their turn to contribute their thoughts.

Be ready with encouraging responses that keep the baton in their hands. If a student gives an IDK, use these prompts to help organize the student’s thinking. Do not dummy down a question or begin to answer it for the student. Keep these IDK bucket-kicker questions prepped and ready:

  • 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?

Invite students to qualify their thoughts. You can hear a lack of confidence in a student’s words. In these cases, students use IDK to avoid committing to an answer they aren’t sure about. When you suspect a student is reticent to reply, instead of affirming or redirecting the answers, encourage qualifiers like:

  • Right now, I’m thinking . . .
  • Based on the little bit I know currently . . .
  • I might change my mind later, but here’s where I am now . . .
  • I’m still thinking this through . . .
  • I’m not exactly sure, so let me take a shot at it . . .

Seek qualifiers instead of commitments. Perfectionists live within our classroom walls. These students have the most trouble committing to their answers because they are still wrestling with the notion that it is acceptable not to know. These students can be 95-percent confident in their thinking and still offer an IDK in place of taking a risk. An answer for these students is to create a mathematical win-win. Ask them to estimate the likelihood that their response is correct. Encourage them to share their thinking, and leave the door open for it to be wrong by quantifying it.

Allow questions as responses. Rather than demanding an answer, invite students to share questions they have about a question. This gives them a chance to gain clarity and deepen knowledge through effective questioning.

Acknowledge students for their effort, not their answers. Praising learners for correct answers can discourage students from taking risks. Many students use this praise to define themselves. They personalize correct/incorrect answers in a way that supports a fixed mindset that they either are smart or not smart…. Effort, persistence, creative thinking, problem-solving, and reflection are all traits that will serve students long past knowing the answer to question number four.

Learn More

Read the entire hack in Hacking Questions 

Listen More

Browse the archive and subscribe to the show at HackLearningPodcast.com

Read More

Browse our collection of books for teachers and school leaders here.