Am I helping them or confusing them?

by Mr. Sheehy

Sometimes I think I clutter my students’ experience more than I help it. If I could leave well enough alone and simply show them a few examples of what I want them to do, they could probably achieve the result better by my stepping out of the way.

Take the scene I witnessed the other day as an analogy for it. S– wakes up early so he and I hang out together before the girls get up. On this particular morning he wanted to piece together our Sesame Street puzzle. It’s a 24-piece, two-sided puzzle, so I helped by flipping all the pieces to the same side of the puzzle so he could find what he was really looking for. As he worked S– would constantly repeat, “Where this piece go?” and I would answer, “I don’t know” each time, refusing to help him. In past attempts I had helped him a bit more, but I have seen him put the entire puzzle together by himself, so in this case I let him alone and refused to take the bait. He didn’t mind–his questions were more a matter of form than an actual request, and he assembled half the picture rather quickly.

Somewhere about that time the girls came out of their room, and S–‘s big sister, E–, plopped beside us to help with the puzzle. I asked her to let him do it, but her version of letting him do it is not the same as mine.She kept pointing to pieces and suggesting which one S– should take next. What was interesting, though, was that as soon as E– began helping, S– slowed down significantly. He would be looking at one part of the puzzle, seemingly searching for something like Bert’s head; E–, meanwhile, would be telling him that a different piece was next, the piece that went on the opposite Jan 10 2011 479side of the puzzle. It looked to me like she had broken his line of thinking, forcing him to regroup and latch onto a different detail to construct its place.

The help did not augment his ability to achieve the task; it actually slowed him down and drew him behind another’s line of thought. Though my daughter was driving me batty “helping” her brother with a puzzle we both knew he could assemble on his own, it is often me playing that role in my interactions at school. In particular, I think of essays and the research paper: how often do my explanations and helps transform students from new and learning writers to slightly confused instruction-followers? Have I made paint by number artists out of capable amateur watercolorists?

I have mentioned before that I harbor a bit of suspicion about the idea of learning to learn. I did not always feel this way. In fact, I remember sitting on a panel at the end of high school where I and other students discussed with some community members and school officials what our experience of school was like, and I mentioned then that learning to learn was the most important thing we were doing at school. It was an embedded idea, I guess you could say, and I carried it through until adulthood.

Then I had children, and watching them has caused me to question why we think people have to learn how to learn.

Yet I know much of the idea behind “learning to learn” is good, and what seems more important is precision in our descriptions. Do we need to teach them how to learn, or do we need to teach them tricks for studying diligently? There’s a huge difference between the two, and understanding it might help me realize that sometimes when students are slow to accomplish something, it might not be that they don’t know how to do it; it might be that I am doing so much that I am hindering their ability to figure it out.

Thanks for reading.