Mathematics Opinion

Learning by Doing ... and Grappling

By David Ginsburg — July 31, 2015 2 min read
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I loved my students’ reactions after they learned something with little or no help from me. Exhales. Smiles. High-fives. Exclamations (“Man, I got it, Coach G!”). And yes, dancing. (I even joined in when it was “Time for the Percolator.”)

Still, I wouldn’t be sold on “learning by doing” if it weren’t so effective. Students demonstrate deeper understanding and better retention of content when they dig for it, interact with it, and struggle with it than when teachers simply present it.

Why, then, is the I Do, We Do, You Do instructional model still so prevalent? A big reason is a common belief among teachers about prerequisites for learning new skills: If students haven’t seen or done something before, then I need to model it before they can try it on their own. Intuitively this may make sense, but in practice it’s way off, especially in math where most new skills build on previously learned skills.

Consider, for example, the connection between equivalent fractions and proportions. There’s no need to show middle schoolers how to solve proportions up front. Just give them a problem that requires them to solve a proportion, and see where they go with it. Some students may make the equivalent fractions connection and proceed accordingly. Others may try different methods. And after circulating to assess students and provide appropriate scaffolding, you’ll be prepared to bring the class together to share strategies, clear up misconceptions, and deepen students’ understanding of proportions and proportional reasoning.

See this approach in action (in the context of dividing decimals) by watching this wonderful video from Giselle Isbell’s 5th grade classroom at Anser Charter School in Boise, ID:

As Giselle and her class illustrate, students often don’t need us to teach them new skills. They need us to give them opportunities to acquire those skills. At the same time, many students have been afflicted with learned helplessness, so be prepared for some pushback when you first pull back. But don’t give in. Wean students off their dependence on you by establishing a hierarchy of help that cultivates self-reliance and collaboration. And if students still ask for help prematurely, tell them what I told my students: “I don’t want to deny you the satisfaction you’ll feel when you figure it out yourself.”

This approach--which I think of as You Do, We Do, I Do--is far more empowering and engaging for students than traditional teacher-led instruction. It’s also more likely to inspire them to dance.

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.