Student Well-Being Opinion

Ginsburg’s Hierarchy of Help

By David Ginsburg — November 30, 2014 2 min read
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“I turn the page!” my daughter said, as she pushed my hand away from the book I was reading to her. She was two at the time, and had entered her “I do myself” phase, which extended to many other tasks such as getting dressed (very fun--inside out shirts, clashing colors) and fastening her seat belt (very frustrating--for both of us--since she didn’t want help even though she couldn’t do it herself).

Terrible twos? More like terrific twos as I look back on those days. And what I learned then from my daughter (and son) reinforced what I had learned from my students: Children need (or want) less help than adults often give them.

In a previous post, I explained why helping students often hurts students:
“The problem is that sooner or later success for students will require self-reliance. In college and the workplace, for example, the professor or boss won’t be there for students every time they need help. And the more we help students now--when they can and should be helping themselves--the less prepared they’ll be later when self-reliance is essential.”

Of course, many students ask teachers for help without even attempting a task on their own. But the real problem isn’t students’ knee-jerk requests for help, but rather teachers obliging them. Hence the term, learned helplessness. A key, then, to students unlearning helplessness is teachers relearning helpfulness.

This starts with a shift from teacher as fountain of information to teacher as facilitator of learning. Provide students access to the resources they need to be successful, and empower them with the skills they need to use those resources. In short, support self-directed learning.

But while this may sound good in theory, it usually doesn’t work in practice without clear, concrete limits. Limits on students when it comes to asking for help, but also on teachers when it comes to providing help. The Hierarchy of Help in the graphic above establishes protocols for students to work independently first, using all available resources; then consult and collaborate with group members if necessary; and finally, summon the teacher when all members of the group have exhausted their resources--including each other--and are still stuck.

In conjunction with the green cup, red cup system, the Hierarchy of Help cultivates self-reliance and collaboration among students. They’re not only slower to ask for help; many of them reject it even when struggling. Reminds me of my daughter. She’s 12 now, and is still in her “I do myself” phase.

Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission.

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.