Allowing Students to ‘Figure it Out’
Too often, well-meaning teachers foster risk-aversion and over-dependence.
When I was a rookie teacher, one of my American history students approached me with a problem. On the final due date, she forgot to print out an essay, and she left her computer (with the Word file in it) at home. She asked for my advice.
“It sounds like you have a problem,” I said. “Good luck, but I have every confidence that you can figure it out, and submit your work to me before the end of the day without penalty.” My response didn’t console her. She wanted reassurance that everything would work out fine. More still, she wanted me to tell her exactly what steps to take to ensure that outcome. I placed blame mostly on her shoulders, but shortly thereafter, I reflected on my own culpability. I had emphasized the importance of following directions, but I had never stopped to think about how to teach trouble-shooting, and everything that goes with it.
Too often, well-meaning teachers foster risk-aversion and over-dependence by distributing exhaustive directions, which leave students with fewer opportunities to learn how to cope with uncertainty, struggle, and disappointment. How should we address this issue? Here are three tactics I find helpful.
- Craft assignments that leave certain parameters vague. Allow students to stew in uncertainty, and to figure out how best to proceed on their own. Initially, you will receive complaints during what I call the “detox period.” Hang in there. Students are used to being told what to do, and exactly how to do it. You need to wean them slowly off this, and eventually you will receive praise for encouraging creative, self-directed learning.
- Allow students to propose their own assignments. Don’t feel you need to give limitless direction. Students need structure. But they also need freedom to explore what matters to them, within the context of a given subject. In my experience, students tend to perform best when they care and are invested in an endeavor. Experiment with how much control you feel comfortable giving up.
- Don’t answer questions students can easily find the answers to themselves. It’s not that students are lazy. They are digital-natives, living in an era of instant gratification. Rather than give in, teachers should encourage students to look online for helpful resources. This fosters independence and resourcefulness, essential life skills.
My convictions were strengthened last week, when Mark Speckman, a revered and highly successful Division III college football coach, currently at Menlo College in Atherton, California, addressed the Palmer Trinity School community, where I teach. What makes Speckman extraordinary isn’t just his immense knowledge and love of the game, but also how he figured out how to become great without hands. He was also born crossed-eyed, and with only nine toes.
“Success is doing a common thing in an uncommon way,” Speckman says. “I played high school football. I could play just about every sport. I played college football, and I started 40 games in college as a linebacker. The habit of no hands never was an issue for me, in my mind. Everybody else thought it was a big deal. Never caused me any problems. I intercepted passes, I could recover fumbles, I could tackle, no issues.
Speckman also managed to learn to play the trombone, throw a baseball, get dressed, and brush his teeth. His trouble-shooting skills are remarkable, surpassed only by his humility and eagerness to help others. In fact, he often travels the country, speaking to large crowds about how to “figure it out.” About the only thing Speckman can’t do is tie his shoes, but even in that instance, he has an important lesson to share.
“One of the things I learned, sometimes you have to ask for help. Sometimes, if you want to reach your potential, you can’t do it all yourself. Sometimes you have to ask for help. I remember, the night before my first college football practice, I was scared to death. I wasn’t scared about meeting girls, I wasn’t scared about going to college or academics, I was scared, ‘Who was going to tie my stuff tomorrow?’”
I don’t mean to suggest that when students encounter difficulty, “figure it out” is always the best answer. Still, we should resist the urge to offer immediate assistance on every occasion. Otherwise, in the long run, we could do more harm than good. Speckman’s resilience is astounding, in large part because he figured out how to do almost everything on his own–including play baseball. If a person without hands possesses the resolve to learn how to throw and catch, we can certainly encourage kids to solve other matters on their own.
“I didn’t have a glove, I didn’t have an engineering degree, I just figured it out,” Speckman says. “The next day, I got up, I had an idea. I told my brother, ‘Let’s go play catch.’ He thought that was a great idea… I’m not going to play varsity baseball, but I can play catch, I can play first base.”
Each student is unique, and it’s our job as teachers to help each student reach his or her unique potential. For Speckman, no matter how hard he tried, he would never play varsity baseball. But in that regard, he reached the pinnacle of his ability. “Potential is something that could happen, but hasn’t happened yet,” Speckman says. “You could go to college. It hasn’t happened yet. You could win the state championship. It hasn’t happened yet. Could do something, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
I wish to thank Speckman for reminding me of my role. I may be a history and journalism teacher, but first and foremost, it’s must job to help students figure out how to realize their potential.