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How Do You Respond to Unexpected Student Questions? Teachers Weigh In

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Picture this: You're standing in front of the class, talking. A student raises his hand and asks a question that you don't know the answer to. 

That scenario was a source of anxiety for Ellen Watson when she was a new high school teacher. "I recall being both delighted and worried when I saw a student's hand raised during my lecture," she wrote in a new study, published in the High School Journal. "I always felt apprehensive receiving a question relevant to the day's content. What if I did not know the answer? I wanted to be viewed as a 'real' teacher, as one wise in the ways of knowing and learning. Yet, I often worried, would I be able to adequately answer this question for the student?" 

Watson, who is now the educational developer at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Alberta in Canada and a Ph.D. student at the secondary education program there, focused on those feelings of anxiety in her paper. Over the course of three months, she interviewed six high school science and math teachers and asked them to describe in detail the moments when a student asked an unexpected question—what was happening, how they prepared to respond, what went through their mind, and their sensory experiences in that moment.

While these descriptions are not quantitative evidence, and the teachers' experiences don't necessarily match those of all teachers, Watson says that these interviews bring new questions and realizations to the surface, as well as invoke insights.

Here are some of the insights she gleaned from the teachers she interviewed:

  • The question can create a moment of pressing uncertainty. When a student asks a question that the teacher doesn't know the answer to, it can catch the teacher off guard. "Uncertainty is not easily hidden from this classroom full of inquisitive eyes," Watson wrote, saying that this moment can be unsettling, disrupting, or even daunting. 
  • The question can disrupt the teacher's instruction. "It was as if [the student] expected me to demonstrate my understanding, when I was really concerned with his understanding," one teacher said. Watson writes that teachers have to consider several factors before answering a student question: Will all the students benefit from the teacher spending time on the issue? What are the priorities for the day? Does the teacher have time to fully explore the question and still get through the lesson? 
  • The question can rock a teacher's prepared lesson. "I was almost shocked when a student asked me to answer such an unexpected question," one teacher said. "It was one thing to teach a question I had prepared and planned, but this?" The teacher handled the situation by asking for a moment to consider the question. 
  • Teachers can feel pressure to be seen as an expert. "They are waiting for me to impart my wisdom, and I briefly consider that I may be a fraud," one teacher said. 
  • The student's question can help the teacher learn. "I knew how to read these graphs, yet never deeply understood them; suddenly I saw it all clearly," one teacher said. Teaching is about letting learning happen, Watson noted, and that may mean being open to questions and uncertainty. The teacher can model what it means to be a good student. 
  • Embracing vulnerability can lead to a greater learning opportunity. One teacher wrote that she shared what she did know in the moment, but that night, she did some more research. "I shared this information in class the next day, grateful for the learning opportunity the question had created, both for the students and for me," she said. Watson theorized that it might be empowering for students to see their teacher admit the need to learn more. It shows that one must actively seek out information. 

Ultimately, Watson concluded, classrooms are unpredictable places. But unpredictable moments, she said, can make way for a different kind of learning—not just managing content, but engaging in the messiness of the unknown. 

"When a student challenges a teacher to think beyond current understandings, and to act beyond their planned instruction, the teacher may feel uneasy, but ultimately both the questioner and the questioned will likely have an opportunity [to] grow from this experience," Watson wrote. "There is beauty in recognizing one still has more to learn."

Education Week opinion bloggers Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers wrote that talented teachers can admit to not knowing the answer to a student's question. Teachers should utilize classroom technology and encourage the class to engage in research to find the answer, they said. 

"Students' questions may hold the key to engaging them in their learning," Berkowicz and Myers wrote. "There is no easier way to establish relevancy."

And guest opinion blogger Maryann Woods-Murphy wrote that more teachers need to encourage students to ask questions. "I get goose bumps seeing what children think and do when we provide them a space for inquiry," she wrote. "When students learn to ask their own questions, they soon understand that what they care about most matters in school."

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