Updated: Jul 20, 2021
One thing that drives me nuts when I am teaching kids is when they tell me, "I don't know." That's because 9 times out of 10 that is a blatant LIE. And the funny thing is that they don't even realize they are lying!
They really do know, but they are just scared to possibly be wrong, or they don't want to put the effort in to answer. And I prove this by asking them these 4 simple questions, which I will share with you later on in the post.
When a kid says to me, "I don't know where to start," what they usually mean is, "I don't know how to finish."
When they say to me, "I don't know," what they usually mean is, "I have an idea how to find the answer but I am not 100% certain, or I am confused by the question, so to avoid embarrassment, I will just say I don't know," or, "I don't really want to try to figure this out myself, so I'll just offload the work to you, so you will explain it to me, and then I don't really have to do anything."
But saying those things would take too long, so it comes out as simply, "I don't know."
Laying on the "I don't know" pretty thick
Usually when a kid tells me "I don't know", I just ignore it and ask them these 4 questions, which are coming up in the next section. Most of the time, they will be able to tell me the answer within 2 minutes. Then, I will usually sarcastically say, "oh weird...I thought you didn't know!" Then we smile and laugh and joyful giggles are had by all.
I don't tell them what to do. I don't give them the answer. I just ask these questions, and then they figure out the answer on their own, because you know what...they actually DO know. They are just pretending they don't.
The best thing about asking these questions is that my students don't need me to answer them. They can answer them on their own, which means I am removed from the equation. This is a process they can follow anytime to improve their question answering skills.
Alright, alright enough suspense. Just tell me these 4 magical questions already! As you command, Conrad.
The 4 Questions for Guiding Yourself to the Answer
Let's walk through a problem together. I just hopped onto Google and typed in "high school algebra problem" and here is one I found,
"Judy has $35 in her savings account in January. By November she had $2500 in her account. What is Judy's rate of change between January and November?"
First thing you want to ask yourself is...
1. What do I already know about this topic?
Generally, when you are asked a question in school, you have already been taught something about it. Moreover, that question will probably be related to the thing you have learned most recently!
So I ask myself, "what do I already know about Judy and savings accounts?" Well, I already know that savings account are usually a place to keep money and grow it. I can see her money went from $35 to $2500 from January to November.
It also mentions the rate of change. Maybe, I am unclear what "rate of change" means, so what would I do? I'd look it up! Like I said a couple paragraphs ago, this question is probably related to something I have learned recently, so I would go back to my notes or textbook and look for the definition of "rate of change".
Now that I have some context to the problem and I have recalled or looked up any knowledge on the subject. Then, I have to figure out the question I am trying to answer, so I ask myself...
2. What is the question asking me to find?
It is vital to know what you are looking for. Imagine if I told you, "Go find it and I'll give you a million dollars." I imagine your first question would be, "Well, what is it?!"
It's going to be pretty hard to find the right answer, if you don't know what answer you are looking for, and the chances are pretty low that you will just randomly stumble into the right answer.
You need an X on the treasure map to find the treasure.
"What is the question asking me to find," might sound like an obvious question to ask. So obvious in fact, that you may think you don't even have to ask it. But there are countless times when I have asked my students what the problem is asking them to find (literally moments after they finish reading the problem), and they won't be able to tell me.
Let's go back to our Judy example:
This question is asking us to find the rate of change. Again, if you don't know what "rate of change" means, you have to look it up! It will be impossible to answer the question if you don't understand what it is asking.
Rate of change means how quickly something is changing, and it is usually described by some change in amount over a change in time, such as 10 meters per second (10 m/s) or 5 percent per year (5 %/ yr)
Ok, so now I have recalled what I know about the topic, and I have discovered what I am trying to find. Now I ask myself...
3. What would I do first to find the answer?
Many kids get stuck because they can't see the path to the answer immediately, so they just don't do anything. But you don't have to find the answer right away. Many times just taking a step in the direction you think you should go will help illuminate the path to the correct answer.
Now, back to good ol' Judy. Judes as I like to call her. I know I am working with her savings account, and I know I am looking for the rate of change. So when I ask myself, "what would I do first to find the answer," I'd think well I am looking for the rate of CHANGE, so it would probably be a good idea to find the CHANGE in her savings account.
Well her savings changed from $35 to $2500. That's a $2465 increase. Ok, great. That's a good first step. Notice that I haven't solved the entire problem yet, and that's OK. So then, I would ask myself...
4. What would I do next to find the answer?
This last question leads you step by step to the answer. You already tackled what you would do first. Now, you think about what you would do next. Breaking it down into steps makes the problem less overwhelming and more easily manageable.
It is also a helpful roadmap. If you can't find an answer to "what would I do next", then maybe you have reached a dead end and need to go back and start looking for another solution.
Ok, let's recap. First, I recalled knowledge about the topic and I identified what the question is asking me to find. Then, I found that Judes increased her savings by $2465, but that is an incomplete answer since it is not a rate. So what would I do next?
Well luckily, I notice that the question talks about certain months (my missing time element!), so maybe I can use that info to finish my rate.
Judes started in January and ended in November, so how many months is that? 10 months if you go up to the very beginning of November and don't include it. Alright, so she gained $2465 over the course of 10 months. So what is her rate of change? It's 2465 divided by the 10 months it took her to save, so that's $246.50 per month. Voila, we have the answer!
Yes, you are.
The cool thing about this final question, "What would I do next to find the answer?", is that you can just keep asking yourself this one over and over again until you reach the final answer.
This is an incredibly powerful process. You can use these 4 questions on any problem you are faced with. It doesn't matter if it is math, English, science, history, or any other subject. If you consistently ask yourself these 4 magical questions when you are solving problems, I promise that you will start to have more clarity and less confusion when you are answering. Try them out and let me know in the comments how they work for you!!