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The key to teaching: Be less helpful

favicon Famous Math teacher and blogger Dan Meyer wants teachers to be less helpful.

I agree.

For Mr. Meyer, this means encouraging students to grapple with the essence of a math problem, rather than providing students with unnecessary layers of information, often from a textbook, that makes math boring.

For me, this means listening to my students and their problems — but not immediately solving them. It means sending the message, “I’m not going to solve your problem, but I’m going to help you think about how to solve your problem.”

The instinct to solve my students’ problems is strong. I want to be helpful. I want my students to be happy. And I want to reduce the number of problems my students have. There are a lot of problems and not very much time.

But this strategy does my students a disservice. They never learn how to solve problems on their own. If I help them too much, my students’ immediate stress may go away, but they haven’t learned what to do the next time they face a challenge.

A few quick anecdotes from today:

1. A student approached me because he is woefully behind on his graduation presentation, due next Monday. He still needs to complete 15 hours of community service and a job shadow. He wanted me to set everything up. I told him no but walked him through the steps he needed to take. He wasn’t happy. He said I wasn’t helping him.

2. A student told me about her distrusting boyfriend and wanted advice about how to save the relationship. “What should I do?” she asked. Telling my student the answer wouldn’t help her realize she’s in a mildly abusive situation. I made sure to listen, ask questions about her feelings, and set her up with our school’s counselor.

3. A student made a one-on-one appointment with me (in order to graduate), forgot to show up, and then didn’t bother to let me know he couldn’t make it. My usual reaction is to close the loop quickly by contacting the student. This time, I’m going to let things play out and see how the student responds. Some teachers may argue that I am not serving the student because I am jeopardizing his chances of graduating, but I have two responses: (a) there must be consequences, (b) as long as I don’t let him fail, it’s OK to teach him that there are ramifications to his actions.

Those are just three examples. I could go on. I’m finding out the best teaching involves communicating and maintaining a clear standard and then helping students who struggle to meet that expectation. This kind of teaching may take more time in the short run, but it sends a strong message: You, the student, will do this because you are smart and capable and can figure things out. favicon

One comment

  1. John at TestSoup

    Constantly helping assumes (and keeps) students/children weak.

    Pulling back and letting them grow assumes (and creates) strength.

    I think you’re on the right track.

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