Most teachers I know are good-hearted people who want what’s best for their students. They will bend over backwards to be kind and understanding when students come from tough home situations. They will find extra time at lunch or after school to talk to a student about a problem she’s having with a bully or a mean clique of kids. They will spend their own money to help a student get the school supplies his family can’t afford to buy for him. And, on a personal, relationship level, such kindheartedness and generosity is definitely to be commended.
But sometimes, when it comes to teaching, such kindheartedness can actually backfire. You see, most teachers want so badly for their students to understand the subject matter and to gain the necessary skills that they will do everything they can to keep students from struggling. They will explain, they will model, they will give hints at the first sign of confusion–and if they aren’t careful, they will actually end up creating students who learn less and become dependent on someone else to do much of their thinking for them (the term for this is “learned helplessness”).
I think it’s crucial that teachers understand just how important it is for students to struggle. Without some struggle, students won’t learn the material as well as they could. Without some struggle, students won’t develop the habits of mind championed by Art Costa and Carol Dweck. Without some struggle, students won’t experience the thrill of achieving a difficult goal that is it’s own reward.
I know it sounds strange to say that it’s important for students to struggle, and I certainly don’t mean that we simply throw challenging work at them and step back and let them sink or swim. There’s a fine line between supporting students toward reaching the course objectives and doing too much of the work for them, and the very best teachers work constantly to give just the right amount of support at the right time and then step back and let their students fly on their own.
Let’s take a look at some of the subtle points that must be considered as you try to find this “just right” balance.
Adding Agency to the Growth Mindset
One topic I’ve written about before is Carol Dweck’s research concerning the growth vs. the fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their ability is set, and there’s nothing they can do about it. A fixed mindset leads these people to do whatever they can to preserve their self-esteem and sense of mastery, including avoiding challenges that might lead to failure and making excuses when their performance doesn’t measure up to their own expectations or those of the teacher.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that they can always grow and improve. A growth mindset leads these people to accept challenges and to look on failure simply as feedback for how to do better the next time. Clearly, having a growth mindset is a powerful asset for students, and as a result, Dweck’s work has become popular with teachers over the past ten years and has led to significant changes in teaching practice.
For example, many teachers have learned that the language they use with their students can go a long way toward helping fixed mindset students re-frame their classroom experiences and their views of themselves. Instead of saying things like, “You really did well on that test. You’re so smart,” which frames a student’s intelligence as a fixed quantity, teachers have learned to say, “You really worked hard to prepare for that test, and it really paid off!” Praising effort (something that’s under the student’s control) sends the message that students can take control of their results in class and can grow and improve.
But praising effort is not a panacea and should not be used indiscriminately. What if the student works hard at something but still does poor work (fails the test, writes a lousy paper, produces sub-standard work on a project)? Good effort, while usually necessary for most students to do well, is not always sufficient. Does it benefit the student for you to say, “Well, you made an F on the test, but at least you tried”? Not at all! What the student needs to know in such a situation is why she failed the test and what to do differently next time to be more successful. She needs to know what learning and study strategies to abandon and what new strategies to adopt.
That is, we need to go beyond just focusing on effort and also focus on agency and a strategic focus. By “agency,” I mean developing in our students the mindset that, if something doesn’t work, they are going to find out why and work with the teacher to find a more effective approach.
In the book Who’s Doing the Work?: How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, Joan Moser (of “the Two Sisters” fame, for those of you in the reading field) tells a story in the book’s Foreword about getting back into playing golf after a long hiatus from the game. The first thing she does is to hire a coach to get her swing back into shape. In their first session, he gives her regular, consistent feedback on nearly every stroke she takes, and soon she’s hitting the ball as well as ever.
Unfortunately for Moser, the very first time she tries to play without her new coach next to her to give feedback, she struggles. In her next coaching session, she relates this story to her coach, who simply nods and has her start hitting balls again. This time, however, when she hits a ball incorrectly, instead of giving her instant feedback on how to correct the problem, he keeps quiet. As the session continues, Moser gets more and more frustrated as each time she hits a ball poorly, her coach just nods and smiles. Finally, her frustration boiling over, she asks her coach what she should do. He just smiles at her and says, “What could you try?”
In that moment, her coach had thrown the responsibility–the agency–back on Moser. In their first session, he had taken all of the responsibility on himself, done all the thinking, and told Moser what to do; she simply followed directions. But she hadn’t really learned anything, and her success was short-lived. In their second session, her coach changed tactics, forcing Moser to do the thinking and take the responsibility for her actions. She still had to put in the physical effort as before, but now she also had to become more engaged in thinking about what she could do to improve. She needed to move beyond mindless effort and focus on what she could do (strategies) to grow as a player.
Scaffolding Run Amok
One of the major buzzwords in education in recent years has been “scaffolding.” When we scaffold instruction, we start off by modeling for students how to achieve the desired performance. Once we have shown students how to perform the skill or apply the strategy, we step back a bit and let them try their hands at it while we carefully monitor their performance and give feedback. Over time, we continue to remove more of the scaffolding until finally students can perform the skill or apply the strategy independently.
That’s the theory, at least, and that’s what it looks like when done well. However, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in recent years. Many teachers have fallen into a habit of over-teaching: over-modeling, over-explaining, telling students what strategy to use and when. In the Burkins and Yaris book mentioned above, they speculate that the focus on high-stakes standardized testing and accountability has played a role in this trend, and I agree. It is almost axiomatic, in my experience, that the more pressure teachers feel to produce “measurable results,” the more of the work in the classroom they take on themselves. They often seem afraid to let the students think on their own, apparently afraid that the students will get off track and move in an unproductive direction if allowed to do so.
What are the results on students of this kind of over-teaching? Burkins and Yaris make an analogy in their book to the famous experiments conducted by Martin Seligman in the 1960’s (Seligman & Maier, 1967) where the experimenters put dogs in cages and then shocked the dogs. After a number of trials, the doors of the cages were left open, but the dogs wouldn’t leave the cages to escape the shocks. They had learned that there was nothing they could do to keep from being shocked, and that lesson stayed with them, even when there was something they could do about the situation. In other words, they had “learned helplessness.”
How does this relate to teachers and students? When a teacher over-teaches, she makes most or all of the decisions for the students. For example, a reading teacher teaching young students how to read in a guided reading session may tell the students to look at the cover of the book and try to infer what the book will be about. She may tell them to open the book to the first page, read the first paragraph, and then pause and make another prediction about what the book will be about. She may then direct their attention to a word in the second paragraph that she believes will be tricky for students and teaches them how to pronounce the word and what it means, etc.
All of these reading skills (inferring, predicting, learning important vocabulary) are good and students need to learn them, but when the teacher is the one always deciding what students should do and when, and when this is done repeatedly over time, teachers train their students not to make such strategic reading decisions for themselves. Very soon, the students learn to sit and wait for the teacher to tell them every little thing to do–even when to turn the page! They, like the dogs in the experiment, have learned helplessness. They have learned that they aren’t expected to make decisions about what to do to make sense of the text for themselves.
And what happens when suddenly the teacher asks students to read a text on their own? She finds out that the students aren’t using any of the great strategies she modeled for them–because they haven’t learned the habit of figuring out what strategies they should use and when.
What’s Going on in the Brain?
There are good biological reasons why students don’t learn as much when the teacher does most of the thinking and decision-making in the classroom. First of all, the human brain learns by making connections. When we input a new piece of information, the first thing our brains do is to check with prior knowledge (long-term memory) to see what we already know of a related nature. We pull anything related into working (conscious) memory and work to combine the new information with the old in a way that makes sense to us. Doing so, we form a new memory and revise our mental maps of the topic.
Well, at least that’s the way it should work. Sometimes in the classroom, however, it doesn’t go like it should. For example, when a teacher habitually tells students what new information means instead of making students figure this out for themselves, students don’t go through this process of checking with prior knowledge. Rather, both the new factual information and its significance (at least according to and delivered by the teacher) become simply facts. And since the students aren’t being asked to make their own connections to the material, little or no revision of their mental maps takes place, meaning that little or no new neuronal connections are created. As a result, it becomes very difficult for students to learn the information because their role in the process is so passive.
In addition, when students’ initial learning is poor due to the teacher doing too much of the thinking, they lose the power of effortful recall. Once we learn something, we can strengthen the memory trace (the “pathway” to and from that information in the brain) by quizzing ourselves and pulling the information back up. Every time we do this, the learning is strengthened and is thus easier to recall the next time we need it. However, if the teacher does too much of the initial processing and then just “delivers” that material to students, they won’t learn it well initially. This means that later efforts to recall the information may fail, and if this happens, the memory trace simply weakens over time. Soon, students in this predicament may not recall ever having learned the information in the first place.
The Power of Doing (Strategically) Less
Now, let me be careful to make an important point here. I’m not saying that teachers should go back to the bad old days of under-teaching, either, when teachers did very minimal direct instruction and modeling, then gave an assignment for the students to do with minimal feedback before it was turned in for a grade. Scaffolding, done correctly, is a clearly superior approach to that kind of teaching.
So, it’s not about the teacher doing less across the board; rather, it’s about the teacher being more intentional about what she does less of, and when. A teacher still needs to model new skills; a teacher still needs to introduce and model new thinking strategies; a teacher still needs to introduce and teach new vocabulary and factual information. But when it comes to the processing part of the equation, the teacher needs to know when to step back and transfer the responsibility to his students. With this in mind, here are a few tips for finding the right balance between not being helpful enough and being too helpful:
1. Don’t be Quite so Directive in Assignments to Start With
When you design an assignment for students, be careful not to take all of the choice out of it. If you design an assignment in such a way that there’s only one way to do it, students don’t get to practice making choices about what approach they think will work best for them. Given this wiggle room, sometimes their choices will be good ones, and other times they won’t be. But letting them make those choices and then reflecting with them during and following the assignment about their approach will help them learn over time about how to make better choices. This also helps to instill a growth mindset in students.
(By the way, I know that there are some situations–such as maybe a chemistry experiment–where leaving students room to do things their own way could lead to unfortunate, even explosive, results. Obviously, I am not talking about those situations here.)
2. Check for Good Strategy Selection Early and Often
If you followed my advice in #1 above, you gave students some wiggle room to make decisions about how to go about completing the assignment (whether it’s a project, an investigation, a paper, or whatever). But don’t allow them to get too far into their work before you do an initial check for understanding and assess their use of strategies. If you see that an approach is not working, or if you see an impending problem on the horizon, sit down with the student to think things through before they spend too much time on an unproductive approach.
3. Whenever Possible, Ask Questions Instead of Making Statements
When students are in the middle of a project, an investigation, a paper, etc., and you aren’t sure that they’re taking the best approach, try to ask students questions that will get them to assess the approach themselves rather than stepping in and unilaterally deciding that they should do it differently. A less directive approach on your part will get students talking about what they’re trying to accomplish. Often, once you get them talking, they will see a problem that they hadn’t seen before because talking through their approach with another person actually helps them to better organize their thoughts about what they’re trying to accomplish. This habit of reflection is a powerful one and a valuable lifetime learning skill that you can’t develop in your students if you simply step in and tell them what to do. Remember Joan Moser’s golf coach who asked her, when she was struggling, “What Could You Try?”
4. As Soon as Students Start Applying Strategies on Their Own, Stop Doing It For Them
This is the part of the scaffolding process where the teacher starts to gradually remove support. Always be on the lookout for those moments when a student applies something you’ve taught independently without your help. At this point, transfer has taken place. Make a note not to offer help with that skill to that student again the next time the skill is called for. Once a student can perform something independently, she doesn’t need your help with it. Continuing to teach something a student can already do wastes both your time and theirs and contributes to learned helplessness. Remember that a scaffold erected around a building while construction is underway is only meant to stay up until the work is done; it’s designed to be taken down as soon as possible.
5. Move Instruction from Whole Group to Small Group and Individual Work As Students Acquire Skills
When you first introduce a new skill or habit to your students, it makes sense for efficiency’s sake to do it to the whole group at once (unless you’ve done a pre-assessment that tells you that some of the students already possess the skill or habit). Once you’ve introduced and modeled, however, it’s time to move on to the next step in your scaffolding–letting the students try their hands at it while you monitor closely. At this point, you will see that some students “get it” quickly, while others take longer. As soon as you can differentiate between your students’ different proficiency levels with the new skill, it’s time to start grouping students into smaller groups that can work more efficiently together, or to even kick individual students loose to work independently if they master the skill quickly. Groups who need minimal support can be dropped in on from time to time, and those groups of students who are still struggling (and thus need more continued scaffolding) can be visited more often. This differentiated approach to scaffolding allows you to bring all students along at their best individual pace while not over-teaching the fast learners.
6. Use the Power of the Wrong Answer (Non-Judgmentally)
There’s one final tip I’d like to share with you today. It’s not directly related to the scaffolding process, as are the other five tips above, but it’s crucial nevertheless when trying to instill a growth mindset in your students. Here’s the tip: get into the habit of using the power of wrong answers in your teaching. That’s right, wrong answers can be powerful teaching moments–if you bring the right mindset to the situation. There’s not the space here to go into this in any depth (that would take a whole article), but just think about how your classroom could be transformed if every wrong answer on a homework assignment or test was viewed as an opportunity to learn by both you and your students alike. Pausing to explore where a student’s thinking got off track is another chance to teach that student a more successful strategy, and taking the time to do this shows your students that you care for them and that you’re interested in helping them learn, not just in assigning them a grade.
If you have thoughts about today’s topic that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Burkins, J. and Yaris, K. (2016, in press). Who’s doing the work? How to say less so students can do more. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Seligman, M. E. P., and Maier, S. F. (May 1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1): 1-9.
Varlas, L. (March 2016). Mindset 20/20. Education Update, 58(3); 1, 4-5.