What should a teacher do if a student asks a question that he or she cannot answer?

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A teacher can only teach what he or she knows. Some teachers are afraid of being asked questions they can't answer. They try to defend themselves by making a effort to be "well informed" about everything and anything that might come up in class, before class, or after class. This is wearisome and impossible. It is what is called "discursive." Such teachers might do well on quiz shows, but they are spreading themselves too thin. They would be better off to know what they know and know what they don't know. Many people who are not teachers also try to be "well informed" about everything and anything that might come up in a social gathering. Why bother? Nobody really listens to you anyway. An old folk proverb is "Jack of all trades, master of none." Socrates told his friends and pupils that the only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't know anything. And Buddha once replied somewhat as follows to a disciple who asked him a question about the number of stars in the universe and the possibility of intelligent life on other planets:

"This is what I teach and what I do not teach. I teach the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to Nirvana. I do not teach the number of stars in the universe or the possibility of life on other planets."

A teacher can get completely distracted by being asked some off-the-wall question in the middle of a lecture. Some students ask questions just to get attention. Some students ask questions in the hope of being remembered as an "active participant" and getting a better grade. Some students ask questions maliciously, trying to trip the teacher up. I think the best teachers stick to their lesson plan and refuse to get sidetracked. I don't think a teacher should volunteer to do research in order to answer a question at another time. The student ought to be able to do his or her own research if the question is sufficiently important. 

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The above posts really tell you all you need to know if a student asks a question you don't know the answer to despite your knowledge of the subject.  I, too, had the "we're in this together" attitude developed in class, so the idea that I had to look for the answer also helped students admit when they didn't get something.  I found it a very useful tool to show students that learning is lifelong, and no one can know everything.  Again, students could see that it was ok to ask questions to try to stump the teacher, especially in an honors class, which I then turned around to them and asked which ways they would use to find the answer.  I love the idea of the questions in the hallway!  What intellectual curiosity on display!

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Teachers are obviously not infallible, nor can any teacher be expected to answer all questions knowledgeably. I am always quick to admit if I don't have the answer to a specific question, but then I usually tell the student(s) that I will try to look it up and have an answer the next day. I can often find the answer with a minute or two of Googling (if it is a question in which a definitive answer can be provided), and that also shows the student that a little extra work on their part could have provided the answer to their own question.
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I always have a "we're all learning together" motto in my classroom. When a student has a question that I cannot answer, I can use that as a real 'life-long learning moment' to show the students how to find the answer, possibly on a search engine or database, definitely illustrating the point that regardless of diploma, you never stop having to learn, teach yourself, or fact find. 

Since most students all have smart phones now, it definitely wouldn't be wise to try to bluff your way out of the situation with a made-up answer!  It is far too easy for students to look up the facts for themselves--which on my 'open technology campus' is exactly what I might challenge the students to do-- "Okay, class, I admit that I have no idea what the answer to the question is, so everyone pull out their phones.  First one to find the correct answer is the winner!"

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The worst thing a teacher can do is pretend to know the answer, because it's been my experience that students are pretty adept at spotting someone who doesn't know what they are talking about. Beyond that, I agree with the above answers. Teachers are rightly encouraged to model the behaviors and skills they wish to see from their students. What better way is there to do this than by demonstrating curiosity and a desire to be a lifetime learner? In fact, I would suggest that the fact that students are asking tough questions is a dead giveaway that the teacher is creating an atmosphere of curiosity and rigorous intellectual give-and-take. That said, a teacher should obviously strive to learn as much as possible about the subject they teach.

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The above posters make excellent points. Put the ball back into the student's court by asking him or her to make and inference or draw a conclusion. Frequently, the teacher and the class will arrive at an answer together. In addition, let the teacher should let the student know that he or she does not know but is willing to find out. The teacher should encourage the students to find the answer first. If the information is factual, content oriented information that the teacher should know, then the teacher would need to work harder at strengthening his or her foundational knowledge.

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I think it is a good thing when a teacher does not know an answer to a question and admits that.  Certainly, none of us knows everything, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.  But, what is even more important to me is that when I don't know and say so, I am modeling something for my students, that their teacher is a learner, too.  Sometimes we look things up on the spot, thanks to technology today, sometimes I do research and report back to the class, and sometimes I treat it as a voluntary homework assignment for the entire class and give a few extra points for intellectual curiosity and work. 

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Since students are naturally curious, they are going to ask questions I can't answer. I usually ask the student to make a guess or inference, but I am also honest. I help the student find the answer. I always tell students to ask any question. If I don't know the answer, I'll find out what it is!
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