524. Not Telling the Answer

I’ve tried to emphasize that there are many effective ways to teach – that a method or style isn’t wrong just by virtue of its being different. But there’s something I think I do wrong as a volunteer more than I think I did as a teacher. I’m trying to stop doing it, but I really do have to try. That is, I answer children’s questions instead of encouraging them to find their own answers. Or instead of insisting that they find their own; some children in third grade are already wise to the “encouragement” routine. They don’t want to be “encouraged” to use the hard way when there’s an easy way nearby. And someone who will just answer a question makes things easier – at least for the moment.
I think I know why I do it. There are two reasons. One is that I’m proud of knowing answers. Even though I’m talking about third grade (a grade I finished about forty years ago), I’m still proud that I know what third graders are
supposed to know. Or maybe I’m proud again. Some people my age have forgotten that seven nines equal sixty-three, and that Montpelier is the capital of Vermont. They don’t use that information much, and they use their decreased memories to keep track of information they use more. They use calculators and atlases when questions about arithmetic or geography arise. I haven’t forgotten, so whoopee for me. And when I don’t know an answer, it’s fun to figure it out. But I’m not a third-grader, and I’ve often got to remember to keep my answers to myself.
The other reason is that I remember being annoyed when teachers and other adults refused to answer questions when they knew the answers. It felt like a game they played, at times when I didn’t feel like playing games. Now, I hear children express that same kind of annoyance, and I don’t want to be a game-player. I want to just tell them the answers they’re asking for, and be done with it.
A teacher I work with told me about what I was doing, and asked me to stop doing it. She appreciates other ways I help children, but she reminded me that this way was not helping. She planned lessons in which children would discover ways to solve problems. According to her plans, they would try a variety of strategies. In fact, even if they found solutions, they were supposed to check them in other ways. And I was not supposed to be one of the ways.
It’s not always easy to LET children learn. Sometimes it’s easier to GET them to learn. That makes it feel more active. And there are times when the learning that has to happen requires lots of adult participation. But the pattern I’ve been slipping into – one you could also slip into if you’re not careful – gets in the way of learning. We can’t learn FOR children, and we can’t know FOR them. So let’s be careful.

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