Why The Best Learners Don’t Say “I Don’t Know” (And 5 Questions They Ask)

Submitted by KiasuEditor

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The world’s got massive problems right now, but it doesn’t mean parents have stopped worrying about their children’s grades. Uncertainties aside, what can parents do to help children improve their learning experience for the rest of 2020?

As your children head back to school after an extended period away, teachers may observe some learning losses, especially for math and the mother tongue languages. This may afflict the better students as well, especially if they haven’t been reviewing their work at home. In general, humans are thought to forget new information fairly quickly — a study has suggested that the rate of forgetting could be about 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

The first week of the new school term will probably be spent helping students acclimate to a socially distanced school environment, and trying to get them up to speed on concepts taught during home-based learning. Students in Singapore will toggle between home-based learning and school in June, and this will require extra effort on the student’s part to stay motivated and focused.

If you are worried about your child’s learning, encourage them to do this one thing: stop saying “I don’t know,” and ask questions instead. Why is this important? Because when children say “I don’t know,” they do so for very different reasons, and it would help teachers greatly to know what these reasons are.

Here are five questions that your children should be asking their teachers:

“Could you repeat what you just said?”

Whether they’re learning from school or at home, your children’s attention is likely to lapse during classes, in a wax-and-wane pattern. According to childhood development experts, you can calculate a child’s attention span by multiplying his or her age by two to five minutes; in other words, a 10-year-old child can be expected to focus for anything from 20 to 50 minutes.

Being able to actively participate in a lesson helps with focus. This is not just about taking notes or answering questions when called upon; it’s also about ensuring that conditions are ideal for learning. With masks and face shields being introduced in the classroom, there may be communication issues such as muffled speech, and students should be encouraged to alert the teacher if they can’t catch what’s being said. The same goes for online lessons, where system lags may result in sound issues that the teachers are not aware of, unless they receive feedback.

“What does that word or term mean?”

According to a 2018 global study, about three in four 15-year-old students in Singapore fear “failure.” The study did not explore how these fears might manifest during classroom learning, but it’s reasonable to expect that students who fear failure might ask fewer questions in class to avoid looking ignorant or silly. This is where we parents can work to change our children’s attitudes, and even to correct teachers if necessary.

Teach your children that if they don’t understand a word, phrase, or acronym that a teacher is using, it is their right to stop the teacher to request a clarification. Even if a term has been mentioned or taught before, there’s no shame in forgetting something. However, if you and your family members don’t usually ask for clarifications during casual conversations, this is a habit that you will have to develop together. Let your child see you pausing conversations to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that term. What does it mean?” This will make it more natural for him or her to do the same.

“Could I have more time to think about this?”

When a teacher asks your child a question, he or she is likely expecting an answer right away. In fact, according to research, the average length that teachers pause to wait for an answer is only 0.9 seconds. If you know that your child often requires more time to work out an answer, do encourage your child to explain this to the teacher, or talk to your child’s teacher about different ways of eliciting answers that may work better for your child, such as through journaling and pairwork discussions.

Alternatively, if your child is genuinely stumped when called upon for an answer, he or she can be more specific, by saying:

  • “I read the textbook, but I don’t remember…”
  • “I don’t know how to begin solving this problem.”
  • “I know XYZ, but I’m not sure how to use that information to get an answer here.”

“I’m not sure if I’m right, but can I make a guess?”

If, at least anecdotally, Singaporean students still fear asking questions in a classroom setting, it’s highly likely that they may also fear answering questions and providing the “wrong” answers. No teacher sets out to perpetuate a climate of fear in the classroom, but it can happen due to factors such as a lack of time or discipline issues — you will need to check in regularly with your child, as well as your child’s teachers, to get a better sense of the learning environment in the classroom.

On your part, your own attitude towards questions and answers will have a large influence on your child. Do you ask open-ended questions but expect a “right” answer? Do you express disappointment if your child is unable to think as deeply on a subject as you’d hoped? Or are you open to all of your child’s answers, using them to build knowledge together? By creating a healthy environment of questioning and learning at home, you can mitigate the effects of less desirable encounters that may occur elsewhere.

“Can I share this privately with you, or with a small group?”

Does your child have anxiety issues, particularly with regards to speaking up in class? Do discuss this with your child’s teacher or the school counsellor, and ask for a step-by-step plan to build your child’s confidence for classroom participation. For instance, your child could leave comments or feedback for the teacher by writing down his or her thoughts on an index card, or have a one-to-one conversation with the teacher while the rest of the class is engaged. (More suggestions here.)

There are issues that even an extroverted student may not feel comfortable discussing in a large group, and such feedback helps a teacher to consider the comfort levels of students before introducing activities that involve discussions.

Wed 03/06/2020