DO NOT (under any circumstances) ALLOW “I DON’T KNOW” (IDK) to be an acceptable response from any student. This is possible through the application of the masters which, at first, requires great diligence. I promised you this, after you’ve assigned the class a “penalty” for a student who utters IDK, your students will elevate your class environment to a new level of partnership: they will manage each other.

How to start

I start the semester explaining to the classes that school is a place to learn. I don’t expect you to have all the answers, but I do hope you make an educated guess. After all, what if doctors/scientists said “I don’t know” to a cure for AIDS? The school is about thinking new thoughts and learning to be better analyzers.

To create the right atmosphere and context, you need to be able to admit to your students, in front of the class, that you don’t know the answer. It can happen when a student asks you a question or when a question comes from some other source. Once you admit you don’t have the answer, you can guess but admit you don’t know the answer.

By the way, it’s okay… not to know. Sometimes I think that in the culture of our society we should always have the answer, but we can’t; after all, we are only human.

Class when IDK rears its ugly head

After the initial talk to the class, which can talk a good 30 minutes, about the participation guidelines for the class, when a student says IDK in the next day or two, I make a big deal about it and warn the class.

On the third day, and every day after that until the end of the semester, when a student utters the dreaded IDK, the entire class that is present (not the absent ones) must write an essay that is due the next day, no exceptions.

Essay size starts small (200 words) and increases with each appearance. I guarantee you this, on the third trial when a student says IDK, the other students will be yelling and yelling possible answers at him. Let them go as long as the “help” is in the spirit of academics. I have seen students threaten students and then had to stop it. You know where to draw the line with your class.

Be consistent with your IDK application. Don’t show pity or feel sorry for the students. They will respect you when you do what you said you were going to do… IDK will stop.

Give students time to answer the questions. When they can’t say IDK, some take longer than usual to form a response, so give them the time they need. Allowing them to get answers from another student supports peer collaboration and creates a partnership.

The result

AH-HA just improved the collaboration level (tone) of the students in your class while also enforcing behaviors to make students think. Amazing things have happened in my classes as a result of using this technique, especially when a student blurts it out after two months…and the class has a 400-word essay due the next day. You must be consistent with the writing of the essay.this structure removes 99% of IDK.

Helpful tips

1. When students are assigned an essay, give it a title and write it on the board (and in your lesson). Students need time to write amid the groans and stomachaches. Although the essay is a penalty, you want to help students complete it successfully.

I keep the focus of the essay on thought 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 will not give you another assignment to grade with the essay, unless you want one. I deal with grades this way; students who turn it in on time and complete (all words) get 100%. All other students, except those absent on work day, get 0%. If they turn it in late, I give them a low score… keep in mind that the students who got 100% worked hard to get it.

By the way, sometimes I return essays to students, most of the time I save them. I read them in my spare time (I have caught some kids saying some nasty things that needed to be dealt with). If I return them, I write comments on them first.

3. There are times when students are in groups and I am arguing with a group when IDK comes up. In that case, I usually just have one group do the rehearsal. When turned in on time, those students are ground zero for group work; they can still do well. But, for the students in the group that didn’t turn in their homework, they’re now at -100…the chances are extremely high that they’ll have to come to lunch and do the project work by themselves.

4. Crucial to the success of your effort to eliminate IDK, because it is a culture shock for students not to 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 discouraged or feel sorry for the students, even if it’s only three or four students doing IDK. We are training our students to be responsible and pay attention to what they say, in the end they will never forget this exercise.

An excellent and powerful benefit of this IDK exercise is that students begin to manage themselves. You will see this self-management extend to other areas of class work.

Why not say IDK is culture shock? Many reasons, but I think one important one is that too many of us teachers let students get away with it. Forcing students to make an educated guess helps them become better thinkers and analyzers.

Final note, year after year, I have seen the learning environment in my classroom catapult to new levels with zero IDK because it forces students out of their comfort zone. No IDK means they must think, they must take risks amid peer pressure, and they must move beyond habits of mental torpor.