DO NOT ALLOW (under any circumstance) "I DON'T KNOW" (IDK) to be an acceptable answer from any student. This is possible through teacher enforcement that, at first, takes serious diligence. I promised you this, after you have assigned the class a "penalty" for one student uttering IDK your students will elevate your class environment to a new level of partnership – they'll be managing each other.
How to Begin
I start the semester by explaining to classes that school is a place to learn. I don't expect them to have all the answers but I do expect them to take an educated guess. After all, what would happen if doctors / scientists said "I don't know" to a cure for AIDS? School is about thinking new thoughts and learning to be better analyzers.
To produce the right atmosphere and context, you have to be able to admit, to your students – in front of class, that you don't know the answer. It may happen when a student asks you a question, or when a question arises from some other source. Once you admit you don't have the answer, you can make a guess but admit that you don't know the answer.
That is okay by the way … not knowing. Sometimes I think in the culture of our society we must always have the answer, but we can't – we are, after all, only human.
Class When IDK Rears Its' Ugly Head
After the initial talk to class, which may talk a good 30 minutes, about the participation guidelines for class, when a student says IDK in the next day or two I make a big deal and warn the class.
On the third day – and every day after until end of semester, when a student utters the dreaded IDK, the entire class who is present (not absentees) must write an essay that is due the next day – no exceptions.
The size of the essay starts small (200 words) and increases with each occurrence. I guarantee you this, by the third essay when a student says IDK the other students will be shouting and yelling potential answers at him / her. Let them go as long as the "helping" is in the spirit of academics. I've seen students threaten students and then I had to stop it. You know where to draw the line with your class.
Be consistent about enforcing IDK. Don't have pity or feel sorry for the students. They'll respect you when you do what you said you're going to do …. IDK will stop.
Give students time to respond to questions. When they cannot say IDK, it takes longer than usual for some to form an answer, so give them the time they need. Letting them get answers from another student supports peer collaboration and builds partnership.
AH-HA, you have just improved the collaboration level (tone) of students in your class while also enforcing behaviors to make students think. Amazing things have happened to my classes as a result of using this technique, especially when a student just absentmindedly says it after two months …. and the class has a 400 word essay due the next day. You must be consistent with the essay writing , this structure does eliminate 99% of IDK.
1. When the students are assigned an essay, give them a title and write it on the board (and in your lesson). Students need time to write is down amid the groaning and belly aching. Even thought the essay is a penalty, you want to support students in being successful with completing it.
I keep the essay focus on thinking and responsibility:
– why is it important to make educated guesses in life?
– discuss five examples of people who made an educated guess and contributed to life.
– explain how educated guesses will support __________ (relationship, job, family).
2. I'm not giving you another assignment to grade with the essay – unless you want one. I deal with the grades like this; students who turn it in on time and complete (all the words) get a 100%. All the other students, except absentees the day of the assignment get a 0%. If they turn it in late I give them a low score …… gotta keep in mind those students that got a 100% worked hard to get it.
BTW, sometimes I hand essays back to students, most of the time I keep them. I do read them at my leisure (have caught a few kids saying some nasty things that had to be dealt with). If I hand them back I do write comments on them first.
3. There are occasions where students are in groups and I'm having a discussion with one group when IDK comes up. In that case, I usually just have that one group do the essay. When it gets turned in on time those students are at ground zero for the group work – they can still do well. But, for the students in the group who don't turn in the assignment, they are now at -100 … chances are extremely high they'll have to come in at lunch and do the project work by them self.
4. Crucial to the success of your effort to eliminate IDK – because it's a culture shock to students to not say IDK – after two or three warnings, you MUST assign the essay for the next 6-8 weeks. You will have no mercy. Don't get faint of heart and feel sorry for students, even if it's just three or four students doing IDK. We are training our students to be responsible and watch what they say – in the end they will never forgot this exercise.
An excellent and far reaching benefit of this IDK exercise is students begin to manage themselves. You'll see this self management spread to other areas of the class work.
Why is not saying IDK such a culture shock? Many reasons, but I think a big one is far too many of us teachers let students get away with saying it. Enforcing students to make an educated guess is supporting them in being better thinkers and analyzers.
Final note, I have, year after year, seen the learning environment in my class catapult to new levels with zero IDK because it forces students to get out of their comfort zone. No IDK means they must think, must take chances among peer pressure, and must move beyond habits of mental lethargy.