• Paul Wade

What to do...when you don't know the answer

So far I have concentrated quite heavily on younger children or given more general advice. in this post, I want to help out those with slightly older kids – likely aged ten and upwards.

We can all remember that moment when a teacher had asked a question and we sat there, dumbstruck, with absolutely no idea what the answer might be. Now imagine that the adult in the room is you, the teacher is back in their front room running a remote lesson with another year group and the question is being asked by your child. But you still have absolutely no idea what the answer might be. What on earth do you do? You don’t want to look like you don’t have a clue and you don’t want to let your child down.

Luckily Helpful Hints is here to save the day – well, make the day marginally less challenging, anyway.

The first thing to do when faced with something you cannot answer is to consider the fact that the work is meant to be challenging. They are not supposed to know the answer to absolutely everything and it is OK for them to get some answers wrong. Look back at the third post in this series for more about that. So you can say “actually, that’s a really hard question, I am sure you don’t have to get every single answer right”. You can even ask them to have a go themselves, because that is more important than just finding the answer out from a parent.

Sometimes, however, this won’t cut it. Maybe they do not understand what the whole task is asking them to do, or the question they are looking at unlocks the rest of the work they have to do, or they have been told to do some work again, because the standard was not high enough. At some point you may have to dip your toe into subject matter that you have not even thought about for years and in some cases didn’t think much about the first time round because it was sunny day outside and lessons could wait (I never did this mum, OK).

This means that you are going to need some strategies for getting to the answer, when you don’t have a clue what it is, or even what the question is asking. So, let’s start with the question. Read it with your child and discuss exactly what it is asking them. Quite often children ask for help with an answer when they actually need help with a question. Unpicking the nature of what is being asked or the task being set can frequently lead to a ‘light bulb’ moment and the rest flows from there.

Let's say, though, that you've unpicked the question and are still none the wiser. Well, here we need to think about different subject areas. I will now split off two big chunks – maths and the sciences vs humanities and the arts (with geography straddling the two).

With questions in maths and the sciences, there is very often a ‘right’ answer, or at the very least a more complete correct answer to a problem that will gain better marks. To get your child to be able to answer questions that you do not yet know the answer to, you will need to ask them about what they already know. Don’t worry if you don’t know the material, just make sure you listen to them, so you can keep up. Once they have explained the extent of their knowledge, get them to think about what it is that they do know that can help with the answer that they don’t. This is called metacognition – thinking about their own thinking – and we will come back to it again in a few posts’ time. By delving into their own store of knowledge and understanding, they should be able to access the key basic information that allows them to unlock the more complex stuff that a difficult question is asking. If this still isn’t working, you can save a bit of face by saying something like “Look, I can give you the answer, but I went to school a long time ago. Maybe the way you answer things is different now. Let’s look it up.” We do this in schools too. It is fine.

In the arts and humanities, you will need a different approach. It is alright if it is something factual like recalling a quote, remembering a date in history, or naming a capital city. You can look any of these things up with complete impunity using the caveat that you didn’t study that book, period of history or part of the world when you were at school. Research single word answers together and then enjoy the shared discovery.

Where a question wants more in depth analysis and you are thinking "the last book I analysed in-depth was a ‘How to’ parenting guide", don’t worry. This is where talk for learning – remember the very first post? – comes in. Talk it all through. Get your child to take the lead and ask small, probing questions to get them going in the right direction. Make suggestions and go off on tangents. Enjoy the discussion and they will enjoy finding the answers.

If none of that works, then you can always send them to another parent, get them to video call a grandparent, or even go back to their teacher for consultation. But do not give up straight away – you never know, you might learn something new too.

By popular demand, in the next post I return to phonics and this time, long vowel sounds – ooooo!

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