be less helpful

I commented on Kristen Fouss’ blog  the other day regarding the having kids work individually and as table groups. I found it interesting that she said “I’m wondering if I can get even lazier and make this even easier on myself. :)” because I think it takes more thoughtful prep work to design activities that students can do independently, be able to gauge their progress, and stay engaged in.

One of my former students was visiting school today, and he mentioned that he didn’t like his psychology professor’s style of putting up a PowerPoint every day and reading off it. He asked how people could come up with all that stuff every day and lecture it, causing “sleepy time.” I told him that writing a PowerPoint was sometimes easier than creating an interactive lesson. I feel that way because in a PowerPoint lesson, it can be easy to create it while only thinking about what you will say and how much material to cover. Considering how 15-30 humans will interpret and react to different modalities in a lesson requires a lot more anticipation and adjustment (from the extremes of “completely checked out because he/she doesn’t understand” to “worked ahead and finished the classwork in 10 minutes”).

I used to focus so narrowly on the content and the details of the class materials rather than how the content would work within the big picture and with all the characters of each class. In some ways, I was like an runner at track practice who said “we’ll all run 8:00/mile for this set of mile repeats, I’ll lead the group,” ended up speeding up with the second runner to 7:30/mile, then looked around at the end wondering why the other two were about half a lap behind.

Everyone in a running club can’t run together all the time, but they can all see gains in speed if they are working hard for the duration of a track workout. So goes the independent work–as long as it’s accessible to everyone, the directions are clear, and all participants can challenge themselves. I appreciated Kristen’s comments below in response to my query.

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I’m glad that my administration encourages independent work that focuses on the students building self-sufficiency. I think my students can handle the work when they fully understand the point of the task, can tell whether they are getting the concepts without me having to check their answers, and when the work is right in that sweet spot of “zone of proximal development.” I’ve given tasks that were way too difficult, explained poorly, or way too easy, and those forays into independent work ended in frustration or boredom. One sweet spot happened when students were making stop-animation videos. They understood the deadlines and how to operate the software, and they were so absorbed in the animation. I didn’t have to remind anyone to get back on task or answer any questions about troubleshooting. That day I remarked to my intern, “wow, they don’t need me anymore!”

I’m incorporating the “be less helpful” and time limit for my students now, reassuring them that I will explain and that the struggle is the valuable part of the experience. Knowing the end is in sight can help students keep focus. For one class, five minutes “struggle time” is working well–for them and me. I’m learning not to have a knee-jerk reaction of “they’re talking boisterously?! they must be off task!” because when I think about how I like to work and solve problems, I like to blabber to my friends. My old vision of “good teaching” was a quiet, studious classroom…”productive chaos” is slowly eradicating that vision. I am also getting better at turning the question around if I can tell the students aren’t collaborating–the “did you ask Little Sally before you asked me?” goes a long way. Now I ask it less.

Thank goodness teachers are *more helpful* to each other!


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