I was doing tai chi. And I was thinking that there probably things that my tai chi teacher wouldn’t want to teach us directly, because when he saw us doing them, he would know that we had figured something out, that we were experiencing the positions correctly. And it occurred to me that I do the same thing in my classroom. There are things about math problems that I am always pleased to see students figure out on their own. When they do, it tells me something about what they understand. And there is a huge difference between knowledge that students gain on their own and knowledge that I, or other students, give them. The former directly indicates growth in the student’s capacity to think and problem-solve. The latter may also contribute to that, but the connection is less direct. And, I think, only the former contributes to the confidence and growth mindset that we know is an important factor for success in anything.
So in math class, there are times when I am deliberately not explaining something to students that I know would be useful to them, in order to allow them to figure it out on their own.
Duh. So what’s the point? I think lots of our students' parents nod their heads when we say at Back to School Night that we aren’t going to explain everything to their children, that the students need to figure things out on their own. But in practice, I think many of those same parents would be confused or even stunned to hear a teacher say “Steve is still really challenged by finding the areas of triangles. I am working on some good problems that I think will stretch his thinking.” We know in the U.S. that figuring things out for yourself is a good idea, but we still have the expectation that teachers explain things, and the best teachers explain things well, meaning quickly and painlessly. This is a deeply rooted priority, and what appears to be a superficial gap between teacher as explainer and teacher as challenge-giver and coach is really more of a gaping chasm.
I write this to warn young teachers about two possible results of this chasm, in the hope that making them explicit may make them more manageable. First, you may forget the difference. In an effort to maintain relationships with parents, administrators, and students who have the “teacher as explainer” model in their heads, you may lose sight of the value of letting students struggle. That does not mean you are deserting the cause, or that you are losing ground. The challenge of managing how much struggle and how much explaining you are going to do in your classroom is just part of the job. You will have to make choices about that every day, they won't be perfect, and you will get better at it.
Second, just as you are doing the very thing that you think is the most valuable for students, when you see yourself as teaching at your best, they may be resentful and disappointed, and see you as an inept, ineffectual teacher. That's the students themselves, their parents, even other teachers or administrators. The gap between the two approaches is both vast and nearly invisible. Everyone seems to be nodding their heads at the same time, but the pictures in their minds of what is good teaching are vastly different. You may want to think about how to talk to both parents and students about the value of struggle, and about why you are going to challenge the students with difficult problems without providing a clear explanation or walking them through the steps. Highlighting your instructional decision and outlining the carefully thought out reasons behind it may go a long way in bridging the gap. Find allies who are eager to support you at your school, conferences, or online (check out some of the My Favorite blogs or follow them on Twitter). Take time to reconnect with the big picture, however that works for you.
I speak from experience. I am always little embarrassed when this suddenly becomes clear to me ... again. It always feels like something I just figured out and something I just remembered at the same time. But that's how it works. We are all captains of our own ship. The course may not always be known, but we keep sailing and doing our best.