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Local Tutoring News in Halifax

It’s OK to tell kids ‘I don’t know’ in classrooms or at home

Apr 17, 2017
Many students arrive at their tutor, such as Sylvan Learning, homework and textbook in hand, filled with questions. Sylvan’s certified teachers may walk them through how to solve for x or review the process of cell reproduction. These experts spend significant time imparting content knowledge, however, the best learning opportunities may arise when teachers do not immediately know the answers. Yes, really.
It’s OK as parents and teachers to not have an immediate answer. The end result can be increased learning for the student. How is this possible?
Throughout their education, students learn study skills to help them succeed with independent learning. Some students may use the answer key in the back of their book to find their errors, while others memorize every key word in the textbook. The ultimate goal, however, is for students to have excellent skills for learning how to learn. This comes from not knowing the answer every time.
Many students have not learned what to do when they don’t know the answer. Some say they feel like the rug had been pulled from underneath them when asked to extend their knowledge into unknown territory. These are great opportunities for preparing students to face a future where constant change means constant learning. Having the ability to solve new problems is a critical skill for success.
The experts at Sylvan strive to teach students how to learn and study independently so they can soon succeed without external support. Here are a few strategies that parents or tutors can use when they don’t know the answer to a student’s question:
Determine what the question is asking. Many questions include unnecessary information. Encourage students to practise underlining the final question they need to answer and cross out information they don’t need. In math questions, identify key words such as “total” or “greater than” and translate those into mathematical symbols.
Encourage the student to practice communicating what they know and what they are confused about. If they can think about their own knowledge and identify gaps, it will make studying a lot easier. In a class such as history, this can be done by making notes, creating a second copy and then deleting what they already know. In math or physics, work through cumulative reviews and note any questions that were incorrect and also those that took a long time to solve.
Use a textbook index to look for the section with the needed information. Many students get into a habit of working within one chapter, yet teachers often look for students to connect ideas across topics. For example, they might need to find the area of a room but all the dimensions are fractions. A few steps are needed and the help may not be on the page with the question.
Discuss strategies for reading critically, including skimming headings to identify the appropriate section, thinking about what will happen before you read the text and analyzing plots or tables.
Actually ask others for help and demonstrate team work. Students might be shy of speaking up or do not want to show that they don’t know the answer. Demonstrate that it is OK to admit when you do not know something and show how you might approach solving the problem. Say “Great question! I wish I knew the answer. How can we find it together?” The question might relate to something you studied a long time ago, or maybe it is something totally new to you. Let them see that this is a normal situation and encourage them to collaborate with others.
Showcase how to use search engines (e.g. Google) effectively by trying different search terms and not wasting time on avenues that seem fruitless.
Discuss how to determine which sites are credible. For example, Wikipedia may be useful for a quick overview, but it is better to use educational sites or published journals as references for essays or for validated information.
Model how to use external knowledge to solve a question. Excellent teachers ask students what they know already about a topic and what else they know that might relate to the current topic. Perhaps their knowledge of a different Shakespeare play might help with the current play, or they have seen a movie about the First World War that will help put their textbook into a relatable context. Leverage that current knowledge as new problems are tackled.
If there are several possible answers to a question, record them all and explain the reasoning behind the options. On a test or assignment, this shows that a student has considered a variety of approaches and demonstrates effort.
Regardless of the strategy, it is important to normalize and encourage asking for help and to demonstrate that there is always a way to approach a new problem. This is a critical skill for students today who will be faced with new future challenges that we haven’t even thought of yet.
For more tips and tricks, visit or call 902-422-7323.
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