As A Professional Teacher, If A Student Ask A Question And You Don’t Know The Answer, What Will You Do

As A Professional Teacher, If A Student Ask A Question And You Don’t Know The Answer, What Will You Do

I agree that honesty is the best policy, and it’s too bad if you’re in a situation in which you feel worried about admitting you don’t know the answer. You shouldn’t try to bluff, by pretending you know but don’t have time to explain or by giving an intentionally vague answer. However, there are ways of handling it more smoothly than just saying “I don’t know” and leaving it at that.

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Depending on the circumstances, you can say “That’s a really interesting question. I haven’t thought about it, so I’ll have to look into it, but let’s talk about it in office hours.” (Or you can promise to return to the topic in the next class meeting if it’s really relevant to the course and everyone in the class will want to know the answer.) Or “These issues can be complicated. I don’t know the details off the top of my head, but the place I’d look them up is Reference Work X. I’d be happy to show you where to find it after class.” Or “That’s a good question, but it’s somewhat beyond the scope of this class. I’d be happy to investigate it with you outside of class.”

The key is to respect the student’s desire to learn. If you avoid the question or give an answer you know is inadequate, then you’re being deliberately unhelpful. If you just give up and admit defeat, then at least you’re being honest, but the student still isn’t finding out what he/she wanted to know. If you respond by pointing the student on the road to an answer, even if you can’t supply it off the top of your head, then you’ve done everything that can be expected of you.

Sadly though, our educational system currently supports the outdated notion that teachers must know more than all their students. Frankly, in the age of the internet and crowd intelligence with knowledge accessible much more quickly, we don’t need educators who know all the answers. Effective Learning and teaching are no longer about fact acquisition and recital, rather, it is about being able to access and apply knowledge and respectively teach students to do the same.

To return to the question then, great teachers shouldn’t feel pigeonholed into a belief that they have to know the answer, and instead, they can confidently help guide and work with their students to find the correct answer. In short: good teachers will take this as a teaching opportunity, rather than a moment for defense.

The benefits of this are vastly superior to the factory model of knowledge transference of the past centuries. In this approach, students learn how to become self-sufficient learners and use knowledge to better themselves and the world around them rather than simply relying on an answer which may have limited relevance in our dynamic world. For educators, it frees us from the trap of having to know every answer and allows us to focus more on how to help our students actually learn. Much less work and more powerful than, as a previous commenter stated, having to solve every single question that any student may postulate.

As a final point, allowing students to ask and explore tough questions engages much more of the class in the answer. Simply telling one student the answer doesn’t create any ownership from the rest of the class and certainly doesn’t support the deep meta-cognition that will support their learning for the rest of their lives.

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