Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful

I’ve been thinking about the educational implications of passage in Tom Friedman’s recent editorial The Start Up of You. Here Friedman quotes a comment made to him by LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman.

“The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone,” he [Hoffman] said to me. “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

So does that mean we’re supposed to prepare our students to become hi-tech startup entrepreneurs? I don’t think that’s realistic, or wise. But I do think that it should remind us that we need to craft learning environments that ask students to increasingly take responsibility for their learning – products, process and evaluation – and the type of deeper thinking and reflection called for in the Common Core standards.

“I want kids behaving like a journalist, like a scientist… not just studying it, but being like it.” ~ Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High

Unfortunately, most of our students get a steady diet of force-fed information and test taking strategies. We’re giving a generation of kids practice for predictable, routine procedures – and that happens across the “bell curve” from AP test prep to meeting minimal proficiency on NCLB-mandated tests.

If LinkedIn’s Hoffman is correct, it makes you wonder how our students are getting prepared for “uncertain, rapidly changing conditions?” School mission statements claim to foster “life-long learning,” but walk in most classrooms and you’ll see students hard at work on a task that’s been scripted by their teacher. Most likely they’re working to replicate a final product that’s already been prescribed (with rubrics) by their teacher.

If students are going to be productive in a dynamic society and workplace they will need to be agile, fluid learners. Students that are encouraged to explore their own approaches and reflect on their progress. Students who can work collaboratively with their peers to plan, implement and evaluate projects of their own design. As Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High put it, “I want kids behaving like a journalist, like a scientist… not just studying it, but being like it.”

Every summer, teachers get to re-invent themselves – to rethink their instructional approach. Here’s your essential question for the coming school year – “How can I stop scaffolding every task for students, and have the courage to be less helpful?” Does this seem like a crazy idea? Asking student to “figure it out themselves,” when every time you’ve given an assignment, you’ve been bombarded with trivial questions like, “… How long does it have to be? … What’s it supposed to look like?”

I think students have been taught that they work for the teacher and the grade. I’ll bet the most “what it supposed to look like” questions come from the “best” students who have learned that their averages are based on faithfully executing assigned work.

For a more on the benefits of “figuring it out for themselves” see my posts Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns or The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning

So be courageous – remember, the same students who seem to be unable to function independently in school are highly motivated by the uncertainty of video game. You can retrain them to “figure it out” at school, as well.

Looking for a few practical ways to start? Here’s four ideas from “Student-Directed Learning Comes of Age: Teachers Adopt Classroom Strategies to Help Students Monitor Their Own Learning” by Dave Saltman in Harvard Education Letter, July/August 2011 [Summary courtesy of The Marshall Memo – a valuable weekly round-up of important ideas and research in K-12 education]

Moving Students Toward Directing Their Own Learning
“An insistent drumbeat of research findings, as well as newly adopted curriculum standards, continues to sound out a message to educators that the work of learning must be shifted from teachers to the ones doing the learning,” says teacher/writer Dave Saltman in this Harvard Education Letter article. “That’s because research and anecdotal evidence suggest that when students manage their own learning, they become more invested in their own academic success.” Saltman describes four approaches that develop self-direction:

  • Choice – Ideally, “students are given lots of opportunities to make connections and connect the dots,” says Ivan Cheng of California State University/Northbridge. California teacher Chris Shook lets his students choose the sequence in which they do assignments, circumscribed by firm deadlines. Even being able to choose between two quite different homework assignments boosts students’ sense of autonomy and increases engagement.
  • Accountability – Ninth-grade California teacher Jill Hodges has her students formulate questions as they read Of Mice and Men – questions that can only be answered in three sentences or more – and take responsibility for moving their knowledge forward. Hodges believes “the best way, the real way, to get kids to higher levels of thinking is to get them to question their own world and then to compare their world to the world of the book.” In the Humanitas program in Los Angeles, students set learning goals at the beginning of each year and list what they hope to accomplish and where they might need extra help.
  • Self-assessment – Some teachers have students fill out “exit tickets” at the end of a class measuring key learning. Others have students design rubrics to evaluate projects and products.
  • Self-efficacy – When they are first introduced to self-directed work, students tend to turn immediately to the teacher for help. Missouri middle-school teacher Angela Cartee won’t help students until they have consulted three other resources (“Ask Three Before Me”). It’s also important, says Stanford professor Carol Dweck, to explicitly teach students about the “growth” mindset and praise strategies, persistence, and progress so that when they encounter difficulty, they don’t give up.

Image credit/ iStockphoto File #: 14041655

12 Replies to “Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful”

  1. Your article on teaching and learning would be more persuasive if you hadn’t used the wrong “their.”

    “Most likely their working to replicate a final product”

    They are = they’re

  2. I love this idea and enjoy that you provide some real classroom examples of how to push students to seek out knowledge, but I struggle with how a teacher that is stuck in an environment where they are held accountable to state tests and forced into common assessments frequently can completely move away from test prep. I want a brave principal to read this and decide to buck the system and see if they can still be a highly successful campus. Would you agree that students should still be successful with standardized tests in this environment, because learning should actually increase?

    1. Hi Chad,

      I share your skepticism. Everything conspires against this approach – students who used to tell me “Mr Pappas, don’t make us think today – can’t we just do a worksheet?” Administrators worried about making the stats (see current Atlanta scandal). And don’t forget parents who can’t understand why their “honor’s kid” is “honors” because they’re good at memorizing review sheets.

      I spent my entire teaching career – over 25 years – in the high stakes testing environment of the NYS Regents exams. We had to get students ready to pass two history tests to get a “Regent’s Diploma.” My strategy was to be quietly subversive. (It’s amazing what you can get away with when you manage your classroom well, deal with parents promptly and never need to send a kid to the office.)

      I finally approached my principal and made an agreement to let me try a different approach from the syllabus mandated by the state. (call it a pilot – lot’s of wiggle room for everyone) Turned out our scores were fine – the kids were far more engaged and motivated. (besides, does anyone really believe test prep works?).

      As my student centered skills improved – everything jelled. Engaged kids, good scores, satisfied parents and supportive administrators. It’s probably why I lasted so long in the classroom.

      I’m speaking to 450 administrators in two weeks – I’ll urge them to be brave!

  3. Great post. It’s time we get back to Piaget, constructivism, and even the NCTM Standards. All of which were so rudely interrupted by today’s reforms. People have to be engaged in their learning, which does not mean entertained. It has to do with owning their learning.

  4. Peter Smyth,
    Thanks for the feedback. If there are still any who doubt your recommendation, let’s set up a comparison of a constructivist lesson and teacher-directed worksheet. Then look at both through the lens of “which lesson looks more like the kind of skills that productive adults will need to master?” No contest.

    In reference to your comment “It has to do with owning their learning.” I just read vision statement of Birdville ISD, Texas. “All students succeed in a future they create.” Nicely said!

  5. I thought your comment to Chad about students saying don’t make us think today was so familiar. The toughest battle I had with AP Calculus and AP Stats students was that they had seldom been required to think deeply for any length of time. They had not been expected to. To do well on these AP exams require more thinking and flexibility than content.
    But the other missing piece, at least in problem solving in math, is the opportunity to make mistakes and keep on going. This is especially problematic among higher achieving students. Talk about frustration …

    1. Hi GA,

      Glad you liked the post and thanks for writing.

      First off, the point you make about students lacking background info is an important one. Many primary source docs require too much background to allow all students to “do the history.” Therefore they need to be selected with some care. Of course you can also have kids working in teams with differentiated sources. The over reliance of background knowledge is explored in this post Students Doing History Beats Test Prep

      Homefront America is a sample of how you can mix different types of source material. This lesson scaffolds the work with a selection of graphic organizers, and uses an essential question.

      For a series of historic units I created using essential questions see: Essential Questions in American History: “The Great Debates”

      In contrast, Analyzing the History of the Bicycle: A Prezi DBQ is an interesting of example of asking students to historic analysis without relying on graphic organizers – instead actually inviting students to develop their own continuity and change model based on designs of historic bicycles

      You should also download my SlideShare “Student as Historian” for many many more resources and lesson ideas.

      Hope this helps!

  6. Thank you, Mr. Pappas, for a very interesting article.
    Molding students into “agile, fluid learners” who can function independently is a very desirable goal. I do have some questions about what you suggest, though…
    1) If I don’t give students any guidelines as to what they are to produce, what do you suggest doing to keep them accountable for completing the assignment well? In other words, how would you grade an assignment that has no clear requirements? Or are you suggesting that there is no objective standard of good work?
    2) If I don’t show students an example of what a high-quality product should look like, how are they going to know that a level of excellence exists beyond what they had previously envisioned?
    3) If I absolve myself of the responsibility for moving a student’s knowledge forward and place it solely in his hands, and he shirks that responsibility, or decides to move it forward far more slowly than he is capable of, or perhaps decides to move it backward or sideways, have I truly accomplished my job as a teacher?
    Any time I’ve given students little to no guidance as to what a final product should look like, a large percentage of them have turned in complete garbage. In some cases, it is because they did not care enough to do something well (after all, as you said, it is only the “best” students who will ask what the assignment is supposed to look like — students who lack motivation will take advantage of ambiguity). In some cases, they have low expectations for their work because until they got to me they had never seen, or been required to produce, high-quality work. What can I do to address these issues?

  7. Chris,

    Thanks for writing. I think you pose some very thoughtful questions and I’m glad you took the time to specify your concerns.

    To begin, let’s go back to the prompt that got this post started – something like “in the future we’ll all have to be continuous learners, always reinventing themselves.” A few questions to consider:
    1. Do you believe that?
    2. If it’s true, and kids need to be prepared for that kind of life, then what should they be doing in school?
    3. If that’snot what their currently doing in school, then how do we move in that direction?

    My post was not intended to be framed as an absolute – “do not help your students!” Instead it’s designed to provoke our thinking about how we typically approach a lesson. And how that supports the skills and habits of mind our students will need to be adaptive learners.

    It’s not about toggling between the extremes – excessive over-modelled classroom where students merely fill in the blank suddenly transforms into open-ended constructivist lessons where student create their own learning. It’s about thoughtfully (and bravely) exploring the space in between.

    You know your kids and I think your skepticism is well founded. So why not start with what you think will work for where your kids are right now. And over time encourage them to take increasing responsibilities. (take off the training wheels?) Start small. Give a few options here. Offer the chance to share and defend a choice there. Create opportunities to peer review their work before it gets turned in. Make it real. I’m sure they all have hobbies, sports or interests in which they approach their work with more diligence. Let them explain their creative process in those areas. Give them chances to reflect on things they’re already “good at.”

    You could explain your goal to them upfront and let them be part of the solution. “I understand you guys need a lot of guidance right now, but some day you’ll need to figure this stuff out on your own. So let’s work together to see how you can be more in charge of your learning …..” There’s no instruction manual for this. In fact, as you struggle through it, you’ll be accomplishing exactly what you’re asking them to do.

    One miracle at a time …

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