George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Art of Teaching Through Doing Nothing

The Art of Teaching Through Doing Nothing

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As teachers, there’s always the desire to go out of your way to help students with their learning. However, what if this is harming their ability in the whole learning process? The increasing lack of ability for kids to problem solve is concerning on many levels. The standard solution of google, it has helped reduce people’s ability to think and respond! ‘eLearning’ has a lot to answer for in terms of building incompetence into kids, where they’re encouraged to seek solutions to their problems from the Internet. Instant access to the answer to almost everything has created new problems in that kids who are reliant on instant results, can’t cope in situations that require a more complex and challenging approach.

Recently, I had a group of students out on a hike into the Budawang Wilderness. This pristine and amazingly rugged part of Morton National Park is a challenging, yet invigorating experience. Prior to the trip, we set the scene for the students. It was their expedition and they were in charge. We would only intervene if there were a safety issue that arose, otherwise every decision was up to them. They were briefed on directions, leadership and group management and given a map and compass.

Moments after the end of the brief, the questions started flying “How far is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What time are we going to get there?”
We both gave the same response. “You’ve been given all the information you need. Work it out yourself!”

It quickly became obvious that none of them had ever experienced this before. They were expecting to be taken on a trip, rather than being challenged by the experience. The temptation of teachers (often born out of frustration) is to take over and do it for them, or show them, as it’s an easy way out. Yet if you do that, you never put the kids outside their comfort zone. You never push them to take any initiative or responsibility and they never actually learn anything.

So we waited for them to work it out, which took some time, then we were off and along the track. The questions about how far we’d gone, how long left and can I eat this muesli bar, continued and were met every time with the same response, “It’s your trip. Work it out yourself.”

Whilst the questions are annoying, once they realise you’re not going to provide them with any answers, they eventually stop asking, until they want reassurance that they’re on the right path, or they’re tired and then like flies to a dead horse, they ask again and again and again, which I refuse to answer unless there is a safety issue.

We eventually made it to camp, probably two hours later than if one of us had been ‘running’ the trip, but what educational value would that have provided? If we just ‘ran’ trips, we would just reinforce the notion that everything can and will be answered and done instantly with no effort on the part of the student. From an educational point of view, this is a complete waste of time and allows for no development of resilience nor initiative in kids, which ultimately will cost them dearly when faced with any sort of challenge later in life.

When leading trips, this has always been my guiding principle. Set the group up once and let them work the rest out for themselves. They must do everything out there in the field for themselves. What time we start, what time we break, pace of the group, setting up camp, dinner time, wake up, pack up, departure and navigation. Everything about the trip needs to be put on the students to think about and take appropriate action to complete.

At the end of the day, you never learn to drive sitting in the passenger seat, so set the group up, then put the responsibility on the group to take ownership and run the trip themselves. It might be tough. They might winged and complain about it, but it lets them develop real problem solving skills and teaches them some valuable lessons that they will never learn anywhere else.

Next time you’re out with a group, don’t take charge and do everything for them. Brief the group, then sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.


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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

This is great, David! After many years of teaching English, I started teaching a digital design class where I let my students choose and direct their own learning. Because I wanted to offer them as many choices as possible, I gave them access to programs that I hadn't learned to use. It was unnerving to teach a class where I wasn't the expert in the material, but the result has been just as you wrote about here. It takes my students awhile to get used to the environment (they choose their projects, they decide when they are done, they submit completed projects with a self-assessment of their work), but eventually they learn so many valuable skills: they collaborate with peers when they need help, they trouble-shoot on their own to solve problems, they access video tutorials to teach themselves, and eventually they stop asking me to solve everything for them. Here's my big question: how do we transfer your "walk in the wild" and my digital design experiences to the traditional academic classroom? I give my English students lots of choice in their writing, and I try to facilitate peer feedback and collaboration, but I haven't figured out how to really make that class as student-directed and sitting-in-the-driver's-seat as my design class is. Would love to hear what you think!

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David Gregory's picture
David Gregory
A fun dynamic leader in Outdoor Education!

Thanks Laura,

It's definitely a tough feeling to begin with as nobody like to feel like letting go of control, but it's been so worth it from a teaching and learning point of view. Translating this to the English classroom is a challenge! I spent a year teaching English in a regular teaching environment and it was really hard to engage students, despite trying many different techniques.

The best poetry project I did with the students was with music lyrics though. They loved breaking down their favourite songs and extracting meaning out of them (some songs were way better than others). Many students didn't even realise the depths and meanings of songs until they did this.

Another option for English would be letting them write about something they love. Cars, sports, horse riding, fashion and letting them explore their personal interest and write about it using different styles. I know this doesn't work well for standardised testing, but could be a way of further engaging those who otherwise just sit in class expecting to be told what they need to do.

Love to hear other thoughts and ideas on this too how to translate back into the classroom environment.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Love your suggestions for English - I do those already (and I would say they DO help with standardized testing!). I think what's really missing in academic classes is the kids pursuing answers on their own. Like in your hiking experience, they needed to figure it out in order to move forward... but in an English (or math or history...) class, do they feel a need to figure it out and "move forward"? How do we set up a situation where the kids are in charge of finding the answers to figuring out the problems in, say, writing an essay, and where they are motivated to do so? I think the best answer is project-based learning, but teachers need a lot of support in developing projects that will work well for their specific area of study, and will also engage students in meaningful work.

Something I tried this year before my students wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, is I told them there were lots of resources online to help them write a novel, and their job was to find some great ones to share with the class. So I tried to help them see that their teacher wasn't their only resource for their school work. They enjoyed finding resources that way. Thanks for replying!

David Gregory's picture
David Gregory
A fun dynamic leader in Outdoor Education!

That's a great idea with the project based learning. I like that as it enables so much creativity to come through. I'd love to know what sort of novels they came up with in the process. It's amazing some of the depths of responses that can come when students discover for themselves there's so much more out there to research and experience and once they find that interest it can fuel them in so many different ways!

David Gregory's picture
David Gregory
A fun dynamic leader in Outdoor Education!

That's fantastic! Some great stories there! Very inspiring! For 8th graders to be putting such a huge amount of work into their writing is amazing. I love that initiative and drive.

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Jerry Marciniak's picture
Jerry Marciniak
Origami Instructor at SummerLab at University of Chicago's Laboratory Schoo

Thank you both, David and Laura! I am a teaching artist and am always delighted to see " real" teachers using strategies in Academic arenas that I practice in my "art lab" setting. I often tell students there is nothing I can teach them about making art that they can not discover on their own. Often it takes a while for them to grasp the concept, but when they do the results of their creative vision is a joy to the eyes.

David Gregory's picture
David Gregory
A fun dynamic leader in Outdoor Education!

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for your comment. That's exactly how I see it as well. We can set the scene and provide the framework, but every student must take their own step or brushstroke, write their own word to create and explore for themselves.

Thanks again!

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