I’ve been in many classrooms where students were sitting in groups but weren’t functioning as groups. And I’ve seen many teachers address this by asking students who’ve successfully completed a task to help those who are stuck. Recently, for example, I heard a teacher praise a student for solving a difficult problem, and then say, “Make sure your whole group understands.” He also said to a student in another group, “Great, now show everyone else how to do that.”
One of these students ignored the teacher and kept working on his own. And though the other student helped her classmates, she had resentment written all over her face the whole time. When debriefing with me later, the teacher said that getting kids to help each other is like pulling teeth. “I had the same experience,” I replied. “But then it occurred to me that I was pulling the wrong teeth.” I then gave two reasons why it’s better to encourage students to ask each other for help than to exhort them to give each other help.
The first reason is what played out in the above scenario, where one student blew off the teacher’s request, while the other begrudgingly indulged it. Such is the risk of seeking help from someone on behalf of someone else. Even people who are normally generous may think, “What’s in it for me?” or “Why don’t they ask me themselves?” I saw this happen when I worked in business, and I’ve seen it happen in lots of classrooms too. As a result, kids may not only feel resentful toward the teacher, but also their classmate(s). By contrast, I can’t recall ever seeing students snub or act resentful toward peers who asked them for help directly.
The second reason it’s better to encourage students to seek help than urge them to give it is that, for any given endeavor, others’ assistance can make the difference between failure and success. And in future academic and work settings, the professor or boss won’t always be there to help students or arrange for someone else to help them. Since students must therefore be willing to ask peers for help in the future, it only makes sense that we should encourage them to ask peers for help now.
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