Friday, March 14, 2014

On Being Less & More Helpful

Recently, I read a blog post from an educator who argued that teachers ought to be less helpful, in order to be more helpful. The argument goes as follows: teachers who over scaffold ruin the opportunity for students to engage in critical thinking and problem solving. Math educator, Dan Meyer cited some wonderful examples in his Ted Talk, "Math Class Needs a Makeover." It's easy to see this issue in math education, especially with word problems. A word problem might ask the volume of an object. In an attempt to scaffold, the problem might list sub questions which identify the major requirements to solve the overall problem. This might be over-scaffolding because an important part of problem solving is identifying the required information and ignoring the irrelevant information. The sub questions substitute for this process of critical thinking. The result is mindless calculations, where students might be able to solve the overall problem but not understand why the solution works. In this case, by being overly helpful, we stunted the intellectual development of our students. What if we just erased the sub questions? It would drastically increase the rigor of the problem. Students would have to think through which information is important and why. They would have to develop a strategy and figure which steps to complete. 

In the real world, when we need to solve problems, there are no clear steps dictated to us. We are the arbitrators of relevant versus irrelevant information. We decide which steps we need to take. Our classes should mirror reality in this case. 

I've been motivated to be less helpful this year. For example, I use to provide experiment-specific guidelines for each lab report. My hints document would tell students which graphs to make, which research to conduct in the background and which statistics to calculate. I no longer provide such a document. My students have to decide which data to graph and what type of graph to make. They have to figure out which topics they should research. Even though I still dictate which statistics to calculate, overall I have achieved my goal of being less helpful and as a result, more helpful. It is working because my students are visibly more frustrated this year about lab reports.  I have had more one on one conversations about graphing this year than in previous years combined. During these discussions, I can help students think about data display without doing the thinking for them. The other result has been freeing up the lab report structure. Students have thought of interesting and unique ways of displaying their data. In the past, these students would not have had this opportunity.

The tricky component is figuring out the best balance between scaffolding and over-scaffolding. I have to be more mindful of when it's appropriate to provide models for students, mandate components and list requirements. My goal is to have fair assessments which require the greatest degree of critical thinking.