Underlying my pedadogy is a strong desire to get out of the way of my learners, be they students in my high school English classes or adults I coach or who participate in professional development courses I’ve designed. I’ve found that being more facilitative than directive communicates both a clear investment in the continued growth of the learner and a belief that the learner is indeed capable of solving his or her own problems, the ultimate goal of any effective teacher. What follows are four tips for getting out of the way of your learners.
Don’t answer their questions.
When presented with a problem to solve or a task to complete, students often begin to ask questions of you, their leader in learning. Those who’ve gotten good at playing school will not only ask questions whose answers are needed to move forward, but some also begin needling adults with questions about minutia related to the project. These students are not comfortable taking a risk, and they are hoping the teacher will eventually cave and just make the hard decisions about content or format for them. Don’t do it. I’ve found that it is your most entitled and enabled students who hold out the longest, but even they will begin to seek resources other than your brain for answers if directed to long enough. Instead of answering the question, work on empowering them to answer their own question by focusing on the purpose of the work and what skill or concept the product is intended to demonstrate mastery of.
Embrace silence and lessen teacher-talk.
When you answer your learners questions directly, they learn to seek answers from you. They do not learn to seek answers from a wide range of resources or from synthesis of these resources over time. When you paraphrase the directions, they aren’t reading and understanding them, using them as a roadmap to success. When you tell them exactly how many sentences your assignment requires, you strip your students of the opportunity to explore how a well-written argument or explanation is actually crafted.
By embracing a purposeful silence or, until that is comfortable, by turning the question back to the learner, learners are reengaged in solving the problems they encounter and identify. There is only so much silence in any conversation: the more teachers fill with their own voices, the less space remains for genuine student inquiry. What emerges when students pursue the questions that are most relevant to them is a student-centered, inquiry-based learning environment. When teachers can get out of the way of this questioning, stepping to the side to act as master problem-solver, co-researcher, and collaborative-learner, students can not only accomplish the specific task at hand, but build capacity for solving accomplishing similar tasks in the future.
In minimizing teacher-talk to allow space for student voices, teachers must also practice active listening when responding to students. The questions students ask won’t always be fruitful; without practice, learners tend to ask questions whose scope are simply far too narrow or far too broad to be relevant to the work at hand: the sweet spot where fruitful research questions lie is narrow and elusive. Active listeners will hear entry points to direct students to these more fruitful questions; others will hear noise. Learning how to listen for cues that you are needed and cues that you are not is key.
Model the messy process of learning genuinely.
By acting as a co-learner, one who genuinely does not have and is not simply withholding answers, teachers can model how genuine learning occurs. Learning is messy business. Some questions lead us to no usable answers; others spin off into a series of more and more complex questions, leading learners down a rabbit hole of interconnected, though not necessarily immediately relevant, information. Information itself is dense and noisy, and making sense of it in the context of the problem one is immediately solving is a critical 21st Century skill, and one that we all would be smart to continually practice. By making transparent a teacher’s toolkit for problem-solving, students are more able to identify the tools they currently lack. Efforts can then be focused on building those specific skills, again differentiating the learning as it is relevant to each individual learner.
In closing, I encourage you to deliberately step to the side of your student’s learning this week, creating silence by lessening your teacher-talk while practicing your active listening skills and fighting the desire to simply answer questions when there is value in the seeking of answers.