416. Choosing a Strategy

Teachers develop vast repertoires of strategies for helping children learn. They get those strategies from courses they’ve taken, books and articles they’ve read, teachers they’ve observed, their own thoughts, and countless other sources. Some of those strategies make their way into plan books, but you can’t plan everything; sometimes you just have to teach by ear, and hope you’re doing it well.
Yesterday, Jane Mellor, one of the teachers I work with, listened to a child who had a problem. The child was supposed to speculate about how the author of a historical novel they had read had gotten information to write the book. In a serious, concerned voice, this child said she honestly had no idea how the author could have found information. The main character in the book was not famous. No books had been written about this character. The poor child was at a loss.
My inclination would have been to help the child speculate – to ask leading questions and steer the child toward an approach that would work. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or both, I’ll bet many of you would have had similar inclinations. Here was a child who needed help, and was quite articulate in asking for it. It really looked as if the obvious thing to do would be to give her the help she was asking for.
But Jane used a different approach. She asked whether there was anyone else who could help figure out how the author had found information. Children raised their hands, and one at a time, started suggesting possibilities. The child who had the problem listened to her peers’ suggestions, and seemed to feel better.
I don’t mean to imply that Jane’s approach was earth-shaking or ground- breaking. It’s an approach I’ve seen often, and I’ve used it plenty of times myself. But seeing her use that approach at that moment, I was reminded of the degree of skill teachers have to have all the time. They have to carry around their repertoires of teaching strategies, and in each situation, they have to decide which strategy is most appropriate.
Perhaps in another situation, Jane would have asked a leading question. It was a judgment call, and from where I sat, it looked as if she’d made a good call. I’m a good teacher, but if I’d been in charge at that moment, I would have chosen
a less effective strategy from my repertoire. I would have rushed to the rescue, and the good interaction between the peers would not have happened.
Like most interactions between people, teaching is complicated. Every moment of a teacher’s school day is full of decisions to be made: Which child should get my attention now? Should I help this child or not? Should I let this child make a mistake? There’s so much going on when twenty or so children, all of whom have different abilities and learning styles, are in one room, trying to learn together.
When I write about teaching, I usually focus on one aspect of it at a time. That’s a luxury I have as a writer. But teachers don’t have that luxury.

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