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Teaching Secrets: Don’t Cripple With Compassion

By Ellen Berg — May 26, 2010 3 min read

Late last month, my teaching colleagues and I got to participate in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ national conference here in San Diego. We moved one of our teacher workdays so teachers could attend because our principal did the math (so to speak) and found that it was cheaper to send the entire staff on a professional development day than it was to send the six teachers who asked to go and hire subs for the two days they’d be gone. Pretty smart.

We are working on creating a constructivist math program at our school, and our philosophy is that everyone, not just the math teachers, has a perspective that will help us revamp our program. So, even though I am an English teacher, I went along and looked forward to learning.

I attended many great sessions and came away with ideas for my own content area as well as math. I was most excited by NCTM’s process standards that outline the critical thinking required to make meaning of math instead of mimicry as is too often the case.

In a session on the process standards, though, the presenter made a statement that rocked me to my core and absolutely resonated with me: One of the major issues with American teachers especially is our predilection to rescue kids instead of letting them struggle with the content a bit. In essence, we’re too compassionate.

Think about it. How often do we see a kid with a cramped look on his face and rush in to show him how to do something? What about when they whine and say it’s too haaaaaard?

I get how difficult it is to step back and let them struggle, but I also know that it’s in the disequilibrium that kids have to make sense of things and that’s when the learning happens. If we do it for them, why would they be persistent with a problem or give it more than 30 seconds? And how can they become confident, self-directed learners if we don’t ever let them have that experience? Finally, why would they ever believe that they are able to figure it out if we show them by our actions that we don’t believe they can, either?

I’m not talking about failing to scaffold instruction or give kids input. Of course we want to do that. What I’m talking about is resisting the urge to fix things for them instead of asking more questions to get them thinking. I’m talking about sometimes just telling them, “I know you can do this,” and walking away.

For example, I recently passed out four interrelated epitaphs from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters and told the groups to try to piece together the story and figure out the big scandal, using evidence to support their thinking. The scandal is never explicitly stated, but there’s enough evidence in the text to figure it out. Beyond that, there are a number of conclusions that students could make a case for, so there was more than one right answer.

Groups read each epitaph and discussed it for maybe a minute before they started whining. “I don’t get it!” “What’s the answer? We can’t figure it out.” I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t have any clue,” then told them I knew they could solve the mystery. After realizing I really was going to make them suck it up and keep working at it, they returned to the text and started trying to puzzle through it.

I circulated among the groups and listened. When I did speak, it was usually to ask a question to help kids dig deeper into their own thinking. It took some time, but in each group the light bulb would click on, and the kids would get excited because they were coming up with something plausible.

Groups shared their conclusions with each other at the end of it and debated the merits of each group’s result. And my whiny kids? To a person, they all said, “Hey, can we do more stuff like this? This was cool!” They did something hard and prevailed; I think that’s pretty cool myself.

One of my early mentors gave me great advice that speaks to the issue of crippling kids with compassion. She told me, “Don’t do anything for the kids that they can do themselves, and if they can’t do it themselves, teach them the tools they need so they can.” Wise words.

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