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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Learning the Hard Way

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I learned something about myself and about students the other day with my son and his friend. We were at a fathers-and-sons campout, and one of the fireside activities included a puzzle. My son and his friend became very curious about it.

The puzzle was the one in which you have a rope tied around your wrists and your partner has a different rope tied around his wrists. The ropes are interconnected in the middle, and the task is to get separated without untying the ropes. The boys witnessed that it could be done, but they did not see how it was done. This piqued their curiosity in a way that a video game could never do, and both became determined to figure this out -- no matter how long it took.

The Truth About Motivation

So Gideon and his friend TJ, who are oth 15 years old, worked at this puzzle for a good 30 minutes. It was interesting to watch them contort and twist, trying to get the ropes disconnected. Perhaps even more interesting was my reaction to this situation. I knew the answer to the puzzle, and part of me desired -- more than anything -- to share with them this knowledge. But each time I anxiously asked them whether they wanted help, Gideon and TJ emphatically responded, "No help!" So I tried unsuccessfully to content myself with holding the flashlight as they tried one idea after another.

While I watched them, I learned a marvelous truth: The motivation of arriving at the solution to the puzzle was far greater than the motivation of receiving a candy bar, which was the prize for solving the puzzle. This is true even for ravenous teenage boys -- and that discovery is amazing.

As Gideon and TJ continued to work on the puzzle, they noticed that some other boys were doing the same puzzle, but they were much younger, and their motivation -- I believe -- was less intrinsic. They wanted the candy bars, unlike Gideon and TJ, for whom the treats were secondary.

And, worst of all, these younger boys were solving the puzzle. (I think they got help.) This served only to spur my son and his friend on to more fevered twisting and tangling of ropes. It cankered me that I was not allowed to help them solve the puzzle; I was so anxious to help them because I knew the answer. With a few simple words, I could help them be successful.

Then I thought, "Why do I want so badly to share this knowledge? Is it to help them, or is it for me?" I was shocked at the realization that in truth, my motivation was all about me. I wanted to show them how much I knew and how smart I was more than I wanted them to succeed on their own.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

With this realization, I had no trouble keeping my mouth shut, and I let the boys enjoy their learning adventure. A thought did occur to me, though. If I could not help them, perhaps I could get them thinking in the right direction. After all, it was getting late, and who knew how much longer it would take them?

I simply asked a question: "How many circles of rope did you say there were?" "Two!" they responded. "Are you sure?" I prodded. "Yes! See? Wait a minute. There are four. No . . . there are six! Oh, we get it!"

At that point, their progress was much faster, and they eventually did figure it out. Most important, they did it without my help. For these young men, that made all the difference and made the victory chocolate that much sweeter.

The Inquiry Method

After this experience, it got me thinking about my teaching. When I slave over a lesson plan and then create great questions and conversation points, sometimes I put more value on my knowledge and my experience that I want to impart rather than on the significantly greater knowledge and experience the students will gain if I let them discover it on their own. Then the little devil gets on my shoulder and says, "But that takes more planning and more preparation. It is so much easier just to tell them what they need to learn. After all, why reinvent the wheel?"

Pure discovery, also known as the inquiry method, is a true student-centered strategy. Few teachers have the luxury of allotting all their time to it. But few will argue that students learn best when we allow them to discover rather than simply tell them. Most often, because of time constraints, teachers create learning-by-discovery situations only as if they were bubbles in the sea of a teacher-centered curriculum.

But even then, many teachers feel the need to just give the students the answers, either when the students reflexively ask for them or when the teacher, frustrated, just proffers them without being asked. We forget that reinventing the wheel creates better wheels -- and smarter students.

I am reminded of the seagulls that forgot how to fish because they hung around fishermen. As much as we feel we are being philanthropic with our fish, we are, in fact, feeding our own egos and, in essence, creating dependence that will ultimately lead to intellectual starvation. When we constantly answer student questions, we are actually harming the students more than helping them.

Letting Go

The solution, of course, is straightforward and at the same time extremely difficult: When we are faced with the temptation to "help" students, we have to be strong enough to close our mouths at those crucial moments. We have to quit saying, "Let me show you." We have to learn to say, "That is interesting. What do you think? Have you thought about this?" And we have to swallow our pride, lie, and say, "I don't know. Find out for yourself. You might try looking here." In reality, sometimes we do not know the solution, but that is a dangerous place to remain as an educator.

Not directing and controlling students is made even harder by some students, especially the older ones, who routinely say, "Just tell me what I need to know to pass the test!" As we know, our system has trained them to sit quietly and wait for the teacher to give them the answers to the predetermined questions. Savvy teachers will have to do some deculturalization to help these students learn how to discover on their own before they will be able to benefit from this method.

Establishing the habit of getting students to ask questions and search for answers takes 21 days, just like any habit. The rewards of this simple change in thinking will endure much longer in the habits of mind we create in our students.

Gideon and TJ had a blast at the outing for fathers and sons. They experienced success in learning as they solved the rope puzzle. Because of that, they will be emboldened to tackle even harder challenges. I am glad I kept my ego in check and did not rob them of that success by selfishly revealing the solution.

Please share ways you help students inquire and discover and not be dependent on you for all the answers.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Matt Gast's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 11th grade English at Bloom High School in Chicago Heights. For years, I have experienced frustration in my students' need for me to be their source for knowledge. It is satisfying to display my knowledge for the purpose of helping others, but it creates student dependency. That is not true teaching. While attending an AP Language and Composition workshop taught by Julian Fremd last summer, I was introduced to a teaching strategy called Socratic Seminar. The purpose is to allow students to ask and answer their own questions about a text for the purpose of developing a greater understanding. The teacher's role, at least at the beginning of the year, is to develop a lead question and an additional set of questions to be used only if the student dialogue needs redirecting. A good lead question will allow the participants to build upon their individual understanding of the reading to a more mature, far more developed collective understanding of the text. As the year progresses, individual students or even smaller groups can be assigned the task of developing the lead question to begin Socratic Seminar. The strategy places the responsibility of learning in the hands of the students, and the students are very willing to take it. They own the knowledge, and I do not give it to them.

Your seagull metaphor is very true. At times, I feel that I have done students a great disservice by taking the easy route: directly providing them with the knowledge to answer their questions or to solve their problems. After experimenting with Socratic Seminar for a year, I want to find more "student-directed" approaches to learning. It is important to empower our students with the opportunities to develop their own learning and, more importantly, their love for it.

Matt Gast's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 11th grade English at Bloom High School in Chicago Heights. For years, I have experienced frustration in my students' need for me to be their source for knowledge. It is satisfying to display my knowledge for the purpose of helping others, but it creates student dependency. That is not true teaching. While attending an AP Language and Composition workshop taught by Julian Fremd last summer, I was introduced to a teaching strategy called Socratic Seminar. The purpose is to allow students to ask and answer their own questions about a text for the purpose of developing a greater understanding. The teacher's role, at least at the beginning of the year, is to develop a lead question and an additional set of questions to be used only if the student dialogue needs redirecting. A good lead question will allow the participants to build upon their individual understanding of the reading to a more mature, far more developed collective understanding of the text. As the year progresses, individual students or even smaller groups can be assigned the task of developing the lead question to begin Socratic Seminar. The strategy places the responsibility of learning in the hands of the students, and the students are very willing to take it. They own the knowledge, and I do not give it to them.

Your seagull metaphor is very true. At times, I feel that I have done students a great disservice by taking the easy route: directly providing them with the knowledge to answer their questions or to solve their problems. After experimenting with Socratic Seminar for a year, I want to find more "student-directed" approaches to learning. It is important to empower our students with the opportunities to develop their own learning and, more importantly, their love for it.

Shari Lincoln's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mary Jo:

I used to teach literature circles in sixth grade. I, too, experienced the frustration of the students literally looking to me to lead the discussion. Even when they were responding to another student, they would look at me as they spoke. I often reminded them to look at each other when they responded or questioned each others' comments. That one skill took a long time to develop.

One strategy I picked up to help students lead their own discussions is called Fishbowl. After reading a selection, I would ask my students to write a list of questions that would elicit lively discussion. (This was after we explored the differences between "fat" and "skinny" questions.) The next day, I divided my students into 2 groups, and we formed 2 circles with our desks. The inner circle group of students would ask questions and respond to each other. My only job was to moderate time and to move them along to new questions if they got repetitive. The outer circle of students listened and took notes but could not respond. After a certain point, I would call time, and the circles would switch places. Then the new inner circle would have an opportunity to visit one of the questions already discussed or toss out new ones. We worked hard on learning how to listen and not talk over each other. The students also learned to monitor themselves so they would not become discussion hogs. They enjoyed "Fishbowl" and requested it often. With time, they learned to stop looking at me and actually speak to one another.

Shari Lincoln
Fort Worth Country Day
Tx

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Matt:
We get into education in the first place because we want to help. It turns out that sometime our desire to help gets in the way. I am glad you found Socratic Seminars. With information on demand provided by the internet, students really can own their knowledge, especially if they are experienced in asking powerful questions. At that point the role of the educator shifts from main knowledge provider to a resource and catalyst for knowledge. You will find that project based learning is another wonderful concept in student directed learning (I avoid using student centered because too many people confuse that with caring about the students needs- seagull-like). Take a look at Edutopia and you will find loads of student directed learning.

Good luck and have a great summer.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Meghann Newell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, Ben, for your great blog. I am a high school English teacher who is constantly frustrated with the fact that students want the answers preached to them without any type of problem solving on their own. I agree that too many teachers fall into the mindset of "why reinvent the wheel" and do not allow their students discover the answers. In an English class, it is so easy to just follow the discussion questions of "who, what, where, how" but the question of "why" is often not discussed, or, even worst, the answer of "why" is given to the students. I believe that the classroom is a place of discovery and not merely memorization. Thank you again.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Meghann:

You are correct in stating that few teachers ever really get to the "why" because of such a focus on the other questions. Another question that rarely gets answer is "why not?" Especially in an English class, the student's imagination is not solely limited to reasons why something happened, but could also include conjecture about what could or might happen. Thank you for realizing that discovery is not only the fun ice cream of education, but really, the meat and potatoes about true learning.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Mary-Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for an interesting article. This really hit home with me as I often find myself trying to "help" my students along, mostly due to time constraints.I often get frustrated that there is not enough time in the day to allow for the class to be as student centered as I would like. Do you have any suggestions for keeping your class student centered with time restrictions?

Summer Hamrick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an 8th grade math teacher. Our math classes are two periods long (much to the students' dismay) I am actually quite thankful for it. The extra time allows for quite a bit inquiry based learning. Each unit begins with an experiment or activity. Then as the lesson progresses we tie our classwork back to the activity. Our program is set up to teach the concept and from that the students will learn the procedure. It is a very different approach that was used when I was a student. At times it can be difficult because like you, I fight the urge to give them the information. I think this is mostly because I'm still developing a stronger sense of patience and longer period of wait time. Many times I find where one students leaves off in an explanation, another can pick up. I spend very little of my time talking to my students. Instead, I restate what they tell me and pose questions that require deeper thinking.

caurletta sanford's picture

Ben, I really liked your blog because teamwork and problem solving amongst todays children is lacking. They want a quick fix and that's not the case in the real world and as parents, we are setting our children up for failure by sticking them in front of television. Your son is going to turn out to be an awesome young man.

Caurletta

Gayle Kolodny Cole's picture
Gayle Kolodny Cole
Dean of Technology Integration

Ben,

I found this while wrestling with how to best give students time to ask good questions and strengthen their inquiry skills. I have the luxury of having a group of very bright eighth grade students for 75-90 minutes on Thursday, to inspire them as innovators in any way I choose. I can do anything I want with them and they are all bringing their MacBook Pros. I will NOT lecture or "grade" their work. We are working on STEAM - science, tech, engineering, arts, math.

If ANYONE can contribute to my brainstorming so my students can seize this great gift of time in a valuable way, I welcome input in making it the best possible experience for them:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gXaRrDqh_pvBeyWbddYHIuNJ4XVeMG0ZoULk...

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