Answering questions that you can’t answer

Students will ask you the most amazing questions. Sometimes you won't be able to answer them.

When I first started teaching I remember being filled with dread that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer. Of all my worries and fears about teaching, the unanswerable question was that thing that kept me up late at night.

The scenario went something like this.

Student (smartly dressed): What’s the importance of the Tenth Amendment?

Me (stammering): Uh, um, ah, uh. The Tenth? We still have Ten? Um. The importance of the Tenth Amendment? Uh, I don’t know.

Students: Loser, loser, ha, ha, ha. See he doesn’t know anything. Enchain him!

After twenty years of teaching, this nightmare hasn’t happened yet. I don’t mean that I’ve answered every question. I just mean that I’ve managed to navigate tons of wondrous student questions without serious incident. And as I look back on 20 years of teaching I realize that the thousands upon thousands of student questions is the yeast that has leavened our learning. And the important thing I've done isn't answering their questions, but encouraging my students to ask question after beautiful question.


A classroom without questions is like a concert hall without music


I still remember the fear I had when I thought about all those questions my students would lob at me like flaming hot oil, so here’s a handy dandy guide to answering questions you can’t answer.

What do I do if I can’t answer a question?

  • Tell the class that you don’t know (try not to do this with every question)
  • Lie and make up an answer (this will come back to haunt you)
  • Ask the students if they know the answer
  • Have students write down the question to answer for homework (for a grade, extra credit, props, or bragging rights)
  • Use resources in class: textbooks, readings, the internet (we are not all so lucky) to find the answer
  • Write it down on the board. Tell the students you’ll have their answer tomorrow. Explain how you will attempt find the answer (this can be a good lesson on the nature of learning, the value of being able to find answers, and the value of education)
  • Pretend to be ill and run screaming from the room

 


All knowledge is a result of someone asking a question


Whatever approach you take, remember, the question is much more important than the answer. If your students are asking hard questions you’ve already taught them the most important lesson.