Angela Farmer


With the return to school this month many students come home with a variety of self-prescribed inabilities. Whether it’s “I can’t, I don’t know, It’s too hard, or I just don’t get it,” students clearly can experience frustration when trying to master new concepts and ideas and methods. What’s important is not what they don’t yet know, but rather how they process that yet to be acquired knowledge.

In “25 Alternatives to I Don’t Know & I Can’t” by Terry Heick, the author details how the focus on learning new material is a growth mindset with the willingness to change. Naturally, just thinking good thoughts won’t, by themselves, allow one to acquire new knowledge; however, language and how students frame their thinking with words has a great deal to do with the rate of behavioral changes. Below are some examples of how parents and educators can help students reshape their language to set a positive mindset.

I can’t figure this out vs. I haven’t been able to figure this out.

They won’t listen vs. I haven’t figured out how to make them listen yet.

I’ve failed three times vs. I’ve found three ways that doesn’t work.

I don’t know vs. I’ll know as soon as I figure it out.

In these examples students are changing their words to embrace the problem with a positive outlook and a need to investigate further rather than a reason to quit. By shaping what they don’t yet understand into a learning question, they are also much more likely to elicit a positive response from someone who might be able to help them in their quest. In most cases, students understand part of the question or some of the justification; they just lack the understanding to put all the pieces together to form the final answer.

Helping students see challenges faced as just one step closer to the solution helps them to recognize that their work is not impossible; it’s just new to them. If they already knew how to do all the work, they shouldn’t be in that class. Demonstrating the need for help during learning simply clarifies that learning is taking place. After more than 30 years of witnessing students learn, one of the best strategies I’ve found for students who are struggling involves the following practices: Reading and re-reading all the preliminary materials; Sometimes supplementing what’s provided with additional resources can help; Students need to put in their own words the simplest version of what they understand from that composite of material; They need to examine the question to make sure that they understand what it is asking.

Is it an open response question based on the reading? Is it a calculation requiring a formula provided in the narrative? Does it require just one or multiple steps to solve? Most importantly, can they find an example of a similar problem where the solution is provided and explained? Once this set of questions can be answered, the student either understands how to begin to address the problem or, at the very least, can detail for the teacher or parent, where along the way that he becomes confused. Understanding what one doesn’t comprehend is often just as important as expressing what one does. This problem dissection also gives the student some internal focus of control over his learning. He has explored the problem. He knows more than he originally did. He just needs help synthesizing the information at this specific step along the way to find the solution.

While learning new materials may never be considered easy, in the words of the ever famous locomotive in Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine That Could,” “I think I can, I think I can” offers some pivotal, internal motivation that helps set students off with the mindset that they can do it; they just need to get more information and a little clearer direction to discover the solution.

DR. ANGELA FARMER is a lifelong educator, author, and syndicated columnist and serves Mississippi State University as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Honors for the Shackouls Honors College. Readers can contact her at

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