How should teachers handle a know-it-all pupil?

Every teacher has taught one – the child who is always sure that they have the answer, even when they don’t. Such overconfidence can be damaging in the classroom, experts warn – and teachers should consider these pupils vulnerable, rather than just plain arrogant, writes Gemma Corby
12th June 2020, 12:02am
How Should Teachers Handle A Know-it-all Pupil?
Gemma Corby


How should teachers handle a know-it-all pupil?

Can anyone remember how the Milankovitch cycles affect climate?" you ask your Year 9 geographers.

Almost before you have finished asking the question, a hand shoots into the air. You know whose hand it is without even having to look: it's Julian's hand, of course.

All teachers will have encountered a student like Julian: a classic know-it-all. They are the one who is always sure that they know the answer, even though they often don't. They are the one telling everyone how easy the task is, even when they are struggling to get past the initial stages. And they are the one who always insists they are right, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Julians of the classroom can be highly disruptive, damaging their own learning and that of others with their behaviour. So, what should we be doing in schools about the know-it-alls, both for their own sakes and for the benefit of their peers?

First, we must look at how a know-it-all is made. There are a number of theories, explains psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Diane Barth.

"Some know-it-alls are insecure, and act as though they know everything as a way of overcompensating for their insecurity. Showing off is a way of trying to make themselves feel better," she says. "Others are people who are overly sure of themselves. They want to be admired, and they don't understand that showing off can actually make them seem less knowledgeable."

How does a child develop into either of these personas?

"Sometimes these behaviours are learned in childhood as a way of compensating for feeling inadequate or unrecognised," Barth explains. "And sometimes they can be the result of being overly admired by parents who think their child is the most special being in the world. Those children may grow up to expect admiration from others and show off or act like they know everything as a result."

She adds that, in simple terms, the know-it-all challenge is a behaviour challenge. What you are viewing, she says, is attention-seeking behaviour in the same way that throwing a chair or being rude might be aimed at attracting attention; getting your answer in first, declaring tasks to be easy or beneath you - it is all a challenge and an attempt to provoke a reaction.

Unfortunately, the above behaviour can lead to a vicious cycle whereby the issue is exacerbated. These pupils are vulnerable to becoming social pariahs because of their tendency to be overbearing, argumentative and aggressive. In addition, due to their conviction that they always know best, their interests can be limited. With that comes less attention, and a seeking of more, hence incidents tend to escalate.

As every teacher knows, pastoral problems like these have a hugely negative impact on attainment. But the know-it-all mindset creates learning problems all on its own.

Research carried out by Derek Schatz and Don Moore indicates that the more confident someone is that their answer is correct, the more surprised they will be if they find they are wrong - so far, so predictable. But the confusing thing with know-it-alls is that this surprise does not seem to reduce subsequent confidence, which means that their hand is likely to be in the air again for the very next question with just as much assuredness.

The quality of their work may be impacted by this inability to identify and learn from their mistakes - they frequently overestimate their skills and knowledge. They also don't learn easily from their peers. In their article on overprecision (ie, overconfidence in the accuracy of one's own understanding), Schatz and Moore state: "Excessive faith in their beliefs can also lead people to discount others' views or even disparage others as biased."

All in all, know-it-alls have a pretty rough time in school on all fronts. And Schatz and Moore believe they should be treated as vulnerable: "Overprecision leads people to do too little to protect themselves against low probability risks…[it] blinds people to the need to consider other perspectives. These mistakes can have painful consequences."

So, what can teachers do to support young people who show these traits?

Firstly, as with other challenging behaviour, teachers should ensure that clear rules and boundaries are in place and that the behaviour policy is followed: should the know-it-all shout out uninvited, or belittle others for not knowing the answer, or fail to listen or appreciate others, it should be something that is covered in the rules of the school and classroom.

Alongside this, pre-emptive action, such as carefully selecting who the know-it-all works with, is also important. In group work, ensure everyone has a specific role as this provides students a clear avenue for participation. The Centre for Teaching and Learning, based at Washington University in St Louis, explains: "Assigning group roles reduces the likelihood of one individual completing the task for the whole group, or 'taking over', to the detriment of others' learning."

Essentially, creating conditions whereby the know-it-all cannot negatively influence the learning of others is essential.

As for working with the student directly, Barth suggests asking them questions about their behaviour or feelings rather than addressing the individual incidents.

Speaking about her work with one particular patient, in an article published by Psychology Today, she wrote: "I realised that she had taken my comments as criticisms. I was simply reinforcing her feeling that she was not smart enough and was not doing enough."

What a teacher needs is a positive relationship with the pupil. The teacher has to reassure the know-it-all that they do not need to know everything and that everyone makes mistakes. The teacher should model this: make sure you embrace your own errors.

This should be combined with positive, targeted praise and, according to the Educate Me Foundation, the handing over of responsibility. Know-it-alls are constantly seeking validation, it says, so inviting them to share what they actually do know (at a time suitable to you and your lesson plan) might be a good option.

Above all, however challenging a know-it-all can be, remember to always treat the student with compassion and respect. Reframing them as vulnerable rather than cocky is probably the best way to find a route to helping them - and everyone else - move forwards.

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

This article originally appeared in the 12 June 2020 issue under the headline "How to handle a know-it-all"

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