Be the change, being a teacher, challenge, Student-centered

Is Teaching Killing Student Self-Reliance?

“But mommy, I can’t!!!!”  Thea is struggling to put two pieces together for a game, I look at her patiently and urge her to try again, try again.  As parents we are slightly bewildered by the “I can’ts” we hear every day; little things such as getting socks on, or big things seem an insurmountable challenge for our 3 year old turn into cries for help and yet with diligence we urge her to move on, to try again, and to figure it out.  We are trying to raise a self-reliant little girl that faces challenges with relish rather than hide from them.  We want her to have faith in herself, in her abilities, and to also have courage.

I go to school and see the same thing; “I don’t get this…”  “I can’t do this…” can be heard on a regular basis and I know I am not alone. So I made one of my goals to teach self-reliance, to teach courage, to teach willingness to try and fail.  To urge these students patiently on, to identify the problem and figure out how to solve it. Sure it would be easier if I would just do it for them, but what does that teach?

So I ponder, what if we as teacher removed ourselves from the equation?  Set up a problem or challenge for the class and then stepped back to see what would happen?  Since the beginning of the year this has played out in my classroom; here is the challenge, you have the skills, now solve it. While some may claim I do not do my full job then, I would say that I am preparing students to be independent thinkers.  To trust in themselves and their own abilities, to be problem-solvers, intuitive thinkers, and to not ever be afraid of something not working.  The result?  Students who try first and then turn to tools, to each other to figure something out. Students ho discuss solutions and challenges with themselves and each other.  Students who know it is ok to pull out a piece of scrap aper, try something, throw it out and try something else.

When we over-prescribe and over-explain, we rob students of the pleasure of accomplishment. Sure they will still get from point A to point B, but the satisfaction of true learning will be diminished. When I tell my students that I have a challenge for them, and yes that it may be difficult but not impossible, I get some trepidation, some wavering and then it turns to determination, to a “we can do this” moment.  That is what learning should look like.  My students have become more self-reliant, more courageous learners, more willing to take a risk and figure something out. Sure they still ask for my help, but it is with pointed questions and tried pathways.

So can you step back, can you let them try without giving out all of the steps?  Can you teach them overall skills on how to attack problems and then let them customize to each situation?  It takes guts and it takes courage, and it also takes an enormous belief in your students.  I think they deserve it.

8 thoughts on “Is Teaching Killing Student Self-Reliance?”

  1. Pernille,I totally agree with you on this. I'm a firm believer in equipping students, then stepping back and allowing them to solve the problems. We practice this almost daily in our math lessons. At the first of the year, as soon as students think it is hard they raise their hands and immediately ask for help. I give them the tools (draw a picture, look back another problem like it, etc…), or sometimes just tell them to try it first on their own. Year after year, I get the same results–kids who learn to THINK and solve problems on their own. They're proud of their accomplishments and so am I. Thanks for posting this.ThinkShareTeach

  2. I agree 100% with you. Some teachers are too quick to give an answer instead of providing tools for students to be able to rely on themselves for answers. And sometimes we do this without even thinking, or because we have 5 other students raising their hands and it's easier to not spend the time that is needed with the student.Very insightful, thank you for this article.

  3. We overprescribe and overexplain so when we are called on the carpet by administrators because they failed (instead of their simply accepting that they failed), we have an excuse.

  4. Andrew, Thank you so much for the link to the research report, I have just skimmed it so far but look forward to reading it front to back. I don't think i am advocating for minimal instruction but rather worthwhile condensed instruction so that students can explore, attempt, and discuss. This all seems to be missing from many classroom settings. I think we teach them the skills, then hold their hands for a step-by-step process and never let them go on their own or only minimally so, and I do not think that creates self-reliant learners. Thank you for a wonderful comment that made me think.

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