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

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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!"

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

mizzwillie eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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!

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator
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.
litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
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!
thewanderlust878 | Student

I think that is a great opportunity for learning when a teacher does not know the answer to a question, for both the student and the teacher. Inevitably it will happen at some time in both the teacher's and the student's careers, and it should be used well. Meaning, I think that the teacher should take the time to answer the question and not just put it off by saying "I don't know" or something like that. And, if there was a student who knows the answer, I think that is also a great opportunity for that student to shine and get their voice heard. 

Hope this helps!

arrellbelle | Student

I've had teachers who couldn't answer questions sometimes and the professional thing to do is tell them that you don't know the answer and see if there are students who may know the answer. Other times, a teacher may tell that student that they'll look it up online during class, when the students are doing classwork, and they'll get back to them afterwards.

belladona | Student
You can tell the student to look it up themselves because it provides a great learning opportunity for them. It will also help with their research skills. Then while they try to find the answer, you can look it up yourself and provide further background on whatever they found. So it will seem like you knew the answer all along.
atlaswave | Student

Just tell the student that you do not know about it and then appreciate his curiosity and tell him that you will search about it and then search and tell him

cynnye | Student

I agree ths students will totally be able to tell if you do not know the answer and are trying to act like you do. Then you lose credibility and trust, which are so important for a comfortable classroom environment. I know a teacher that gives her students extra credit if they can come up with a question that she cannot answer.  This motivates students to think critically. Then she has them find the answer and share it with the class.  I love this idea and will begin trying it myself.  

hell-boy- | Student

If they don't know the answer they should say 1 of these 3 things:

1) Tell the child they don't know the answer and that they will find the answer for tomorrow.

2) Tell the child to research the question and tell them for tomorrow.

3) Tell the child to ask their parents.

lgreenhut | Student

Often, my students ask questions that can't be answered by anyone, such as "How was the universe created?" We have a wall outside our classroom where these questions are posted. I have found that students enjoy contributing to the Great Wall of Questions as well as reading what others have asked. It's a way to spark intellectual curiosity and to display the depth of thinking that led to asking the question in the first place. When parents and guests come to visit the school, they often linger at the wall, sometimes asking questions of their own.

If I suspect the student can get to the answer, sometimes I'll ask questions of my own to help them along in their reasoning, or I'll load up an image from the internet to guide them.

francais307 | Student

Honesty is always the best policy. Never make up an answer or lie. I would give my best guess to what the answer could be, but also admit that I am not certain. A good response could be, "That is a great question! I think the answer might be... but I will definitely do some research to find out for sure."

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