Teachers, what to do when you don’t know what to do!

Carefully observe students

There are times when an instructor is in the middle of a class and a learner poses a question that the instructor does not know how to answer.  There are other times when the instructor detects a gap in student learning where learners may not come right out and ask a question, but there is some issue that needs to be addressed that the instructor is unable to answer.  By carefully observing student behavior, an attentive instructor should be able to detect these moments and either make a mental note or write down some notes in order to look into the issue later.

Paraphrase students’ doubts

Part of the observation process is having an exchange with students in order to clarify precisely the issue they are experiencing.  Paraphrasing what the learners have said or what was observed offers a clear way to determine what the exact issue happens to be.  This gives the instructor time to think more deeply about the issue as instructor-learner exchanges emerge, allowing the instructor to share some knowledge about the issue depending on the circumstances.

State what is known, and be honest

While instructor-learner exchanges are unfolding, instructors should be honest about what they know and how certain they are about what they know.  Mistakes can happen, but being honest is always the best policy when stating something as fact. Usually, learners can detect when instructors are making things up as they go along, so it’s best to error on the side of caution if not completely certain about a particular topic.  When possible, state what you know and reference outside sources when applicable, and when outside sources pose a difference in perspective, present various viewpoints when there is no one correct answer to the question.  Also, instructors should try to be aware of personal biases when expressing what is known about a particular topic, and constantly reflect on how one can continue to grow one’s knowledge base through ongoing professional learning through objective observation of one’s own perspective.

State what is not known, and be honest

An instructor should be forthcoming when it comes to sharing with learners what is not known about a topic as well.  There may even be uncertainty about a topic which should also be communicated to the class.  Don’t be afraid to ask the learners themselves for answers as well.  When instructors do not know how to answer a question while in class, instructors may choose to turn the moment into an inquiry-based experience where learners look up a question online (if mobile devices and an internet connection are available).  Alternatively, an instructor might have learners look up the answer outside of class, and have them present their answers in a subsequent lesson.

Commit to a follow up response

After the instructor and learners have determined what needs to be looked up for a subsequent class, the instructor should commit to a designated date for answering the question.  Either the instructor can schedule a time to answer the question or the learners themselves can answer (or both).  The point is that the same day that the unanswered question comes up, there should be an arrangement set in the future so that the question doesn’t just fade away.  If the instructor and learners are using social media as part of the educative experience, then follow up answers might occur more timely and before a subsequent face-to-face class by exchanges happening openly online (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

Pursue Wisdom

Professional learning for an instructor comes from one’s wisdom.  The five facets of wisdom that an instructor might consider are as follows:

  • “Problem Solving with self-knowledge and sustainable actions.
  • Contextual, sincerity to the circumstances with knowledge of its negative and positive aspects (or constraints).
  • [Value-based] consistent actions with knowledge of diversity in ethical opinions.
  • Tolerance towards uncertainty in life with unconditional acceptance.
  • Empathy with oneself to understand one’s own emotions (or to be emotionally oriented), morals…etc. and others feelings including the ability to see oneself as part of a larger whole” (para. 11).

An instructor can consider professional learning in terms of cultivating a personal and professional eportfolio or website dedicated to demonstrating one’s knowledge and understandings, skill sets, and values and attitudes related to becoming a more competent teacher practitioner. A teacher practitioner should embrace those moments when an answer to a question is not attainable by always having a clear plan when unprepared to answer a particular question while in front of the group of eager learners.


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