I Don’t Understand and I Can’t Explain

Creating relevant learning for Littles can be daunting. It seems every learning context has the potential to be new for little learners. They come to school with a myriad of school (and non-school) experiences. While I question my Littles a lot, I also listen to my Littles a lot. They are used to me just listening and receiving a poker face in return, because I really want them to feel the discomfort that is learning. I want them to rely on their own understanding and their own metacognition, without me constantly interjecting. That is powerful in building independent and interdependent thinkers and learners.

Listening also breaks me of a bad habit.

It’s one that has matriculated year after year of my teaching. While I tend to create a risk-free environment in everything that occurs in my classroom, my Littles know that if they don’t understand something, they have the responsibility to ask for clarification. Many embrace this, while others still are stuck in the phenomena of assuming they should know everything and not knowing something is deemed as complete failure; instead of the other way around. NOT knowing is success because it means you are on the cusp of learning something new!

My pitfall (one of many!) is always asking learners, “What don’t you understand…” when they, quite innocently say, “I don’t understand.” I can think of very few questions that are more inane from a teacher than this one. If a learner knew how to explain what he or she didn’t understand, wouldn’t that be a platform for him or her to dissect the misunderstanding and puzzle it back together for learning?


Yet, it’s the go to phrase that many of us use. I listen to teachers, too. I hear this often in some form or another. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel rushed, or we have just never given it any thought, but asking a learner, especially a Little, what he or she already knows, instead of what he or she doesn’t, allows a teacher to pull from a relevant place, some building blocks to get to the important learning. What if we simply said, instead, “Tell me what you already know.”

Even if what is known is a misconception or off-topic, it can certainly reveal the next learning steps.

I’ve shifted this practice and it is true that sometimes, all my Littles know is how to put their name on their paper, or that the holes go on the left side when formatting notebook paper—but that’s a start! Even building on that simple piece of knowledge has the potential to build relevancy. Your next question can be, “What next? Once your name is on your paper, what are you being asked to do?”

This pattern becomes a dialogue of learning. As teachers, to create those relationships that lead to relevancy, we have to dialogue with our learners. Asking, “What do you know, what can you do, how did you get to this point, what is frustrating you, what were you thinking when you got stumped” are all ways to highlight an opportunity for learning and avoids the repetitive regurgitation of, “I don’t know.”

Just like  the muddy shoe moments I emphasized, children don’t really know how to express what they don’t know, so we have to mine that information out of them. As adults, we have the cognition to plan, monitor, and assess our understanding and performance. By simply rephrasing the question of, “What don’t you understand,” in order to create a learning dialogue that prompts teachers to begin from whatever starting point your learners can voice, children will begin to independently dissect their thinking and push themselves further in learning.

Author: Dr. Valerie King

Quirky thinker. Joyful teacher. Perpetual learner. For the Kids.

One thought on “I Don’t Understand and I Can’t Explain”

  1. As always, great points! Questioning what a child does know rather than what they don’t honors the learning that has already occurred and encourages the student to keep growing.

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