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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

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tricia Rinaldi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

loved this article!!! I printed it out and it is on my bulletin board as a constant reminder. I also hope to do some modeling in chemistry this summer in Penn. which really ties in with self discovery.

thanks again,

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


I am flattered by your enthusiasm. I am sure that you are also that enthusiastic in your classroom and your activities.

Yes, teachers need to know when to be quiet and let the students roust around, sometime pointlessly. That is in fact the "center" of student- centered philosophies.

I would love to be a fly on the wall and watch what you do with the modeling in chemistry. It's been a while since I took chemistry (I would not have passed it except that I was on the track team and the coach was the teacher).

Could you describe how you would use these principles in your modeling?


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Frank Noschese's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Ben,

I teach high school physics and try to use modeling principles whenever I can in my classes.

A great article about the modeling method (for physics in particular), can be found here:

For one teacher's transfomation with modeling instruction, see:

One caveat: modeling isn't purely discovery/inquiry and isn't purely student-centered. It is highly structured, but done in such a way that the students still create the knowledge for themselves and the students *feel* like they are in control.

Thanks for a great article, by the way!

Frank Noschse

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


You are right. As educators, we do not have the time or the luxury of letting the students experiment and discover all the time (pure student-centered instruction is where the student makes all the decisions about what to learn when and how). As a result, we find a middle ground, where the teacher controls all the variables and holds the students accountable for learning, but because of the learning environment that the teacher created, the students feel that they are discovering the targeted concepts on their own. Teacher controlled learning is a lot faster and more efficient than student controlled learning.

My main point in this post was simply to pop our teacher "know it all" bubble and illustrate the dependence that we generate in students because of our egos.

We would have to be pretty conceited to believe that we are smarter or more capable than our students. The only thing we have in our favor is we have a head start on them.

Thanks for sharing the websites. I will check them out.

Best Regards;

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Christine Packwood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A true constructivist approach allows for discovery or inquiry learning. I agree it always easier just to spoon feed the material we want them to know, but to see the light bulb go on when they discover the answer on their own is priceless. The end benefit is they will more often than not never forget the material they discovered and will be capable of applying it across multiple setting or situations.

As a special education teacher it is always a struggle to try and find the time to let them discover, when you have them for such short amounts of time and you must cover so much. This year I have had to push myself to let my students discover with some guidance from me as our district has implemented a new math program, Investigations by Scott Forsmann. This is a discovery based approach to mathematics. It has been challenging, yet so rewarding. I am still struggling to try and cover all that is needed, but not spoon feed too much. I am excited about next year and to see how students who have had this curriculum and discovery based learning for more than one year will come in for the next school year and how far they can be stretched.

Dana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am new to the teaching profession at 43. I have learning many things in my first year, such as I have a lot more to learn. I have read the blog "Learning the Hard Way" By Ben Johnson.

I try the inquiry method with my students but I am having trouble convincing my students to think critically. Answers are blurted out without thinking. I guide them to more qualified answers however I am finding the same students are answering most questions.

How do I get other students involved?How do I train students to question on a higher level?

Dana Story

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


If I understand your question right, you really have two questions. 1) How do I set up a learning environment where students can investigate and 2) How do I get students to think on their own?

The answer to the first question is probably easier than the answer to the second. Certainly, anything can be turned into inquiry, but the key is making sure the students need to know. You have to find a way to make them want to know the answer. Competitions are an easy way to do that. Game shows, reality tv, mysteries... can set the stage for the students to want to find solutions and answers. Scientific experiments (which by the way do not always have to be performed in science) are a natural for inquiry. Research is another good inquiry method. There are more...

The answer to the second question is one of patience. I worked with a group of 9th graders in a six week summer academy with an inquiry based curriculum. The first week, they studied a few case studies and learned background skills, and when it came to the group inquiry part, they just sat there. They didn't know what to do. They were supposed to come up with a product to sell based on need, interest, locality, age group and cost. They might as well have been asked to climb the Matterhorn. They didn't know how to inquire and work as a team. So, we had to start with baby steps. We had to ask probing questions--giving no answers. The first project was hard going, but they did it. I will tell you that at the end of the six weeks you would not have recognized them. They were given a final project to determine which was the best plastic or metal with which to make their product. They had to come up with a test and then do the experiment. No sooner had they been given the assignment, they immediately began to ask questions, formulate plans and make assignments.

Unfortunately it appears that you are faced with the situation that the students have been told so often what to do, what to say and what to think that they are unaccustomed to doing it on their own. In essence you have to reverse the "socialization" that elementary schools are so proud of (stand and walk in straight lines, raise your hands, no talking, etc...). The good news is that it is possible, you just have to be patient.

Good luck,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Rebecca 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Dana,

I read your request for help on how to get your students to think on a higher level. First of all, I was taught a method called S.R.E. (statement, reason, evidence). When asked a question, the student would have to give their answer (statement), why they thought so (reason), and where they found out the answer (evidence). I taught Kindergarten and we did numerous projects where they had to map out the "S", "R", and "E". For example, when I asked them to predict what might come next in a story, a student might say, "I think the dog and cat are going to play together, because they both want a friend and are sad without one, and I saw how sad they were on page 12 in the picture". SRE is also a great way for them to do math problems. Basically, it is a method that stops blurting out random answers. In addition to the SRE method, I tried to make whatever we were talking about relevant to the students to increase their interest. Hope this helps!


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