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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

MGoodrich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had such a hard time trying to convince teachers that students don't need you there all the time. I have privided them with activities that really stimulate the students' higher level thinking skills and cooperative groups/peer grouping learning. At fist it is so hard , but modeling the expectations and scaffolding the task at the beginning has helped teachers. They are seeing that the students who were so used to being "handed" the answers are now looking for them and asking each other fantastic questions. We need more effort on the part of the teacher to move some of the learning onto the student. It is ok to let go and have the students take over their own learning.

Blair Rowe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This idea of student centerd learning lends itself great to Art Education.

This is my 3rd year teaching art. My choice of career, Art Educator was spurred only by my love of creating art, not originally for teaching. However, I have discovered this my make me even better at allowing them to "discover" art, which is how I like to look at it instead of "teaching" art.

I try to allow my high school art students the opportunity to hear about the history of the art technique or artist and then let them choose from a few planned projects what they want to experiment with and what they want to create in the end. This seems to work great for most. I am often surprised by their choices and the direction they take the information I have provided. There have been many times when I was unsure that their solution or direction would work, I would offer suggestions and then ultimatley leave it up to them to work it out. I love when I am "wrong"! Their vision did work, their idea was realized! I have the hardest time saying "no" when it comes to art because isnt that the root of art... experimentation, creativity? I think so and I love to see them try and suceed. Even when they try and it doesnt work as they planned it is still not a failure, it is just a different outcome, often better... but always filled with learning.

James McCauley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love that story. It hits home to me in a huge way. I teach high school math, mostly freshamn algebra. I have sop many students that need help and simply do not understand what we are doing. I am constantly working with them trying to help them. I do this so much that it becomes habit. Almost like I tell them the answer so they can say they got it. And it makes me feel good too. Like I can show off what I know and they don't. It's so hard to sometimes sit back and let them try by themselves and let them struggle. Most often, if they want it bad enough, they will figure it out, and the reward is so much better than just repeating an answer.

Mary Jo Gemelke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 4th grade. This year I decided to use literature circles in the attempt to get my students to think more critically about the book that they were reading. We would sit in the circle and read the story together and then I would lead the discussion. No surprise, the kids waited for me to ask the questions and prompt them for answers. Even when I asked them a question, they just couldn't come up with any kind of response. So one day I became so frustrated that I just threw up my hands and told them that I couldn't be in their group anymore because they wouldn't try with me there. And what do you know, once I left their group, they started having real conversations. One or two of them took over the job that I was doing--they got others involved, they asked the questions that made a real conversation, they kept everything flowing.

It took me stepping back and letting them do what I had taught them for them to actually start doing it. What an eye opener for me!

Claudette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading the experience you had with your boys. I agree that the inquiry method allows students to think and form decisions for themselves. Whilst I believe scaffolding students is also important, the inquiry method helps deepen students' impression of what is learnt because they have found their way to the answer for themselves and so they will most likely remember how to do like tasks or as you mentioned they will no longer be afraid of taking on more difficult challenges in the future.
I help my students do more independent research by providing them with choices of activities. I focus the activities the students are to carry out based on interest. The students are to choose the activity that matches their interest, ability or learning profile and so they will need less scaffolding hence fostering more independent work and dependency on the teacher. I also encourage them to ask probing questions about their learning as well.

Marissa 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am currently finishing my first year of teaching. I teach Kindergarten in NC, and I agree with you 100% on your comment about the intrinsic rewards. I see this kind of behavior everyday. Anytime I motivate my students through a reward system, they are more concerned about getting the reward than actually realizing they got the answer correct or did the right thing. As long as there is candy involved, they don't care what the task at hand in.

I think it's wonderful that your son and his friend were so intent on figuring out the puzzle for themselves. Congratulations on holding back for their sake!! I have to admit, I have found myself in the same situation numerous times when knowing the answer to something. It's not so much as I want to help someone, but more that I want them to know that I know the answer and in a way prove myself to them.

Thanks for a great blog!


keder said's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The single most important thing in the Science class is that students should be engaged. When we have hands on activities, use technology,and bring amazing lab work students will be engaged. Unless they are engaged, students are telling me they are bored. Students don't like teacher centered method of teaching our classroom should be student centered.

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


You make it sound so easy!

The reason engagement doesn't happen as much as it needs to happen is that it does take more work to plan, and prepare engaging learning activities, even if they do come from a book.

Realistically, we do not have time to do a totally student centered approach to learning (I prefer to call "student-centered", student-directed learning...less confusion). The teacher has to create the learning environments with in which the students can direct their own learning--but the teacher is still directing the overall learning. But you are right, students do not appreciate teachers who think they are teaching by talking at the students all the time, nor those who are afraid of losing control and do not allow students to make mistakes on their own.

You are right though. Student engagement in productive learning activities is the key to good teaching. Good Luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

Mary Jo:

Well done! Letting go of control sometimes is hard. You obviously discovered that your students could handle things without you. Please do not forget that you had to train them to do it first. Also, there is no reason why you cannot teach them the right way to ask questions too (see my blog post on the same subject). They should know which questions elicit good answers and have practice asking and answering those types of questions.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio,TX

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


Some people say, "Why reinvent the wheel?" when we talk about inquiry learning. "Just tell the student what they need to know."

The problem there is that the knowledge just given to the students will not be valuable or understandable in a way that the students can remember more than a few days. Inquiry takes more preparation and more effort to create the learning environments, but the students can retain the information in a useable format. The information is learned in context and it is immediately revelant. The nicest thing about it is that mostly all the teacher has to do is set up the learning environment and then get out of the way.

Have fun with this.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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