Student Engagement

Learning the Hard Way

April 28, 2009

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.

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