I Don’t Get It.


To me, these are probably four of the most irritating words a student can utter in my classroom. Not because I expect them to understand everything first time, obviously. But because to me that phrase seems a total abdication of responsibility on the part of the speaker. It means, “I don’t care if I get it. It’s not my fault that I get it. Make it all better for me.” Perhaps I’m looking too hard for a subtext that isn’t, consciously at least, intended.

I still don’t want to hear those words. And so I’ve come up with a few strategies that my students know I expect them to use. I say ‘I’, but in fact I mean ‘we’. You’ll recognise some of them, I’m sure – perhaps others will still be useful. Some of them are adapted from suggestions a class made when I asked them to produce a ‘best practice’ guide to asking for help. I’ve tried the ‘traffic lights’ system which can be helpful in gauging confidence, but I’ve found that asking students to be more specific serves a dual purpose:

  • it means I can more quickly give them more appropriate help.
  • by defining the problem more carefully, they can sometimes figure it out themselves.

I encourage students to use the 4Bs – Brain Book Buddy Boss – so that they have tried some things before I get involved. This means that when they ask for help, they aim to put it in the form “I have tried… and I still can’t….” This is so much more positive as I’m able to start off by congratulating them for trying. It’s also a nice way to reinforce the idea of a growth rather than a fixed mindset.

Alternatively – or additionally – it can be worth asking students to describe their problem in terms of Knowledge, Understanding and Skills. Defining the problem is the first step towards solving it. (I knew this sounded ‘quotey’ but was impressed to find that most online sources quote something similar from Einstein.) Efectively this is a form of self-scaffolding, as they are setting themselves up to try a relevant approach. There’s no point reading a glossary if the problem is with solving an equation. This practises skills our students will need, not only in exams but in ‘real life’. Students define parameters, figure out what gaps they need to fill and choose useful strategies. Getting them to analyse or audit weak areas points them in the direction of the solution, the same as checking confidence with an exam checklist sets priorities for revision.

I discussed my ideas – and how I shared them with my classes – of a Learning Journey. Many of the Purpos/ed discussions focussed on the idea that as teachers we are trying to equip students with skills, rather than facts; this blog post sums up the approach nicely. A very important lesson for us to share with students is that we as teachers are not infallible. When a teacher doesn’t know something, or struggles with a question, how we approach it is valuable; it’s often worth ‘thinking out loud‘.

(Clicking on the image of the form will download the printable pdf version)

I also make a checklist available which they are expected to complete if they struggle with homework. If needed, I can point out that the tickboxes are based on students’ suggestions, so they are realistic approaches. It not only gives a gentle reminder about strategies, but also means that leaving work half-completed is no longer the easy option.

If the above doesn’t work, here’s I Don’t Get It as a ppt.


3 thoughts on “I Don’t Get It.”

  1. I’m not a teacher, but I found this post both interesting and hugely reassuring, as I try to use a similar approach with my kids. I believe the best way to help them develop and reach their full potential is not to give them answers, but to show them where the answers can be found and, if necessary, help them look.

    This is also very useful on the many occasions when I can’t answer their questions, because they are used to the response “I don’t know, but we can find out. Can you think of a good place to start looking?”

    I’m afraid I have been known to say “I don’t get it” myself. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on the idea of ever “getting it” or that I’m not motivated to learn more.

    It really doesn’t hurt any for a child to know that adults don’t know everything, sometimes struggle with new information and that we often have to go looking for answers ourselves.

    1. I suppose I should have said the same thing I sometimes tell my kids – and yes, I use this with my own offspring as well as my students! – it’s fine (in fact sometimes essential) to say “I don’t get it,” as long as there’s a silent, unspoken ‘yet’ at the end. I agree wholeheartedly about it not hurting children to know we don’t have all the answers. In fact I’d be tempted to say that it’s essential.

      Thanks for contributing!

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