Monday, August 6, 2012

Why I Won't Tell You What to Do

This is one of my biggest guiding principles in teaching: I won't tell my students what to do.

Okay, I will sometimes. Like when I tell them to clear their desks before a test, to get out a piece of paper, to work with their partner, or to stop playing games on their calculator when they're supposed to be working (and I know they're playing because no one uses their thumbs that much when they're calculating).

But that's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about when a student asks, "How do I solve this problem?" Sometimes I slip, but more often than not, I answer that question with a question. "What do you know about the problem already?" "What are we trying to find?" "How is this similar to/different from this other problem?"

Yup, I'm one of those teachers.

Even when I do "tell" a little more, it's often with options. "What are the tools we've been using? Tables, graphs, and equations. You could try using any of those."

It's easier just to tell students how to solve the problem. Really, it is. (That's why I slip once in a while.) So why don't I just do it that way?

Because it's not about what's easy ... especially not what's easy FOR ME.

It's about getting the student to the point of doing mathematics independently. And before anyone says most people never use anything from algebra or above in "real life," that's not what doing mathematics is truly about. It's about thinking and reasoning and working out what makes sense.

Like so many things from my teaching life, it carries over into my writing life. People ask for feedback, critique, suggestions. In that case it's peer-to-peer, but that makes me even less likely to say, "Do it this way." I try to focus on giving my reaction as a reader, what worked and didn't, leaving it to the writer to figure out how to best resolve any problem areas—if they even agree that the area is a problem.

Some people give feedback by saying, "What if you did it like this?" and proceed to rewrite a whole paragraph or query letter. I can't say it's wrong and no one should do that. Maybe that works for some people. Just me, personally ... it makes me cringe. Once in a while I throw in a "such as" and give a possible sentence to illustrate my point, but I try to keep that really limited with a tone of "but in your own way."

That's the thing. When I tell someone how to solve a problem, they're not really doing mathematics. When someone is writing, feedback is critical. Taking in that feedback, processing it, and deciding what to do about it (if anything) is a necessary skill. It needs to be their work, their writing, their voice. We can suggest and spitball and yea-or-nay ideas, but when it's our writing, we must do the heavy lifting.

And yes, sometimes I slip in that department, too. But I try. I just want to make people think.

But if I said my way of giving feedback is the only way, that would be telling you what to do.

Have you seen or experienced benefits of the direct-instruction approach? Have you seen downsides to being left to puzzle it out, picking and choosing from more general bits of advice?


Anonymous said...

My critique partner took your approach and I must say it really was for the best for me. Her comments about what didn't work were very specific, but she left it up to me to fix the problems. It actually made me come up with some much more creative solutions -- ones she later admitted hadn't crossed her mind. So I suppose that's an example of the success of your teaching technique! -- LucidDreamer

Rick Pieters said...

I try to critique the same way, once in a while throwing in an example, but I agree that giving an answer doesn't allow the person with the problem to learn and problem solve on their own.

Recently an astute helper took a look at a synopsis and said "too many names." Not which ones should go. I had to decide which of the less important ones could be cut, and the result was not only better for the purpose, but better for having left me to focus the piece.

I don't see a downside to being left to puzzle it out. We learn by doing, not by having it done for us.

Mike Lewis said...

When I was teaching computer graphic design applications in college (and this was more when I was a lab assistant rather than the teacher) a student would raise their hand and ask for help in accomplishing a certain piece of design work... perhaps making a complex shape in Adobe Illustrator, etc. It was very helpful that the required textbook was the "Classroom in a Book" series, which had several activities to get students familiar with the wide variety of tools at their disposal.

One particularly difficult activity is learning to use the pen tool to draw bezier curves. It's fairly easy to do the activity and trace the template that's provided. ("Click and release here. Now click here, drag to here, and release.") I know that the idea is to show the student how the tool works, but some (or maybe many) students won't fully comprehend what is going on as long as they maintain a rigid adherence to the instructions. A few of them are daring enough to experiment on the activity and ask themselves, "Okay, but what if I drag to over there instead of here?"

Once the letter-of-the-law students get themselves on a blank canvas with no template to help, they suddenly have deer-in-the-headlights looks on their faces, with the occasional utterance of "Ummm... Where do I start?"

So I step in and tell them, "Okay, get the pen tool. Click here, click here, now click and drag this way. Just play with the tool and mess around with it... see what it does? Now... if you don't get something just perfect, you can always adjust it with this direct selection tool. "

That was on a blank canvas. Then the required assignment was to trace a photo of an automobile. Did I trace the car for them? No. Did I provide the resources and a little knowledge for them to be able to figure out how to trace the car? Absolutely.

I would say that 75% of what I have learned about computers and computer applications was simply from experimentation and trying things out. If I tried multiple ways to get something done, and it still didn't seem right, then I'd read a book or a set of instructions to find out what I was missing. In fact, there were many times as a teacher or lab assistant that a student would ask me something to the effect of, "Should I do ABC for this?" or "Can I do XYZ?"

I would reply with, "I don't know. Try it and see what happens."

Anonymous said...

I hated 'those' teachers when I was in school. Of course now that I'm a parent, I'm totally one of 'those' people. And I'm the same way with critiquing something.

I know that sometimes it just works best if you give an example for people to see, but it's frustrating when someone puts their words down instead of just pointing out the problem. I have a hard time getting their word out of my head. Before I get to rambly, I'll just say I agree with you :)

R.C. Lewis said...

Lucid, my CPs generally use that approach, too. I love it! If I need to spitball possible fixes, they're there for me, and they'll say "maybe you could ____ or ____," but they don't force their own way onto me.

Mike, I see that in math a lot, too. Students can solve problems that are exactly like the ones the teacher showed them, but they can't actually USE the concept. Not very useful.

Janeal, good point—this way isn't easy for the teacher OR the student. Some students resist because they're not used to having to work for it, but in the end it's more rewarding. Hopefully it works out that way for us as writers, too.

R.C. Lewis said...

Oops, I missed Rick. That was a very astute helper, indeed. ;-)

Lisa said...

With my own children, sometimes I find a quick, "Well, what do you think?" works well. Sometimes they just need permission to take the risk and/or the chance to reason out loud.
I think when I'm with a face to face crit group, the conversation is more organic like that, and you get the chance to talk out your confusion/ difficulties. I love my online crit group, but I'm glad I have both.

E.B. Black said...

I've given both types of feedback. Sometimes I feel terrible telling someone that they need to change something, especially if it's really dramatic, without giving them suggestions of how to. I especially like to illustrate how things are done if I see an author making the same mistake over and over again because I feel like it's an area they need special help with.

And I've gotten frustrated due to no direct feedback. For instance, I made a thread recently on AQ Connect about how all my beta readers missed a whole chapter of information in my book. It was invisible to them and how should I fix it. The comments were helpful, but what would have been even more helpful is if the people who actually read the chapter could have given me suggestions on how to fix it. Because they know what would reach them and there's obviously something I don't get.

Sometimes, I don't need explaining because I just missed something and know how to fix it by myself, but other times like that, if you teach me just this one time, I could probably apply it a million times.