Sunday, August 18, 2013

Be Less Helpful

As odd as it sounds, I like this concept.  "Be Less Helpful".  Not to someone who has their arms full of groceries and is trying to fumble with a door handle, of course.  But in learning and education, I think that in more than a few circumstances it might pay off to "be less helpful". 

This morning my power went off.  So rather than drink my oil-barrel sized coffee and eat my gigantic bowl of cereal in front of the TV whilst watching the news like I usually would, I pulled out my phone and looked through a few TED talks.   I found one that was particularly intriguing by Dan Meyer called "Math Class Needs a Makeover", which I am sure most have seen but was new to me (see below).  Within the context of his remedial math class, he spoke about some of the characteristics of his typical math students:

I found these characteristics to be particularly compelling as they could easily have been used to describe me when it came to my math experiences in high school and university.  Oddly, I managed to survive quite well in math, but it was mostly due to the fact that I was quite adept at being able to look at word problems, figure out which bits could fit into a formula that I had memorized prior to a test and feverishly scribbled on the top, and then plug them in--I was 'eager for formula'.

Dan went on to describe the way in which math textbooks typically lay out problems--often times there are bits of data neatly laid out on a table with steps along the side there to guide the student through the problem, or particularly fascinating word problems that really just act as moderately interesting words interspersed between the numbers that the student will need to satisfy the component parts of a formula already given.  Because we do this so often, Meyer contends, students can become expectant of all of the parts of the problem to be laid out for them.  Of course when the pieces are not there, students become frustrated because they are unable to determine these components on their own.  Personally, I agree.

In the parlance of Instructional Rounds, the TASK PREDICTS THE PERFORMANCE.  Should a student be given a series of problems in which each of the variables are given (or at least made reasonably available) to fill out a formula that solves the problem, guess what?  The student will become incredibly adept at decoding the question to find those salient bits and matching them to a formula to spew out an answer, the signficance of which they might have little or no understanding.  This sounds incredibly familiar to me!

Dan Meyer suggests several solutions:

#3, 4 and #5 really resonate with me, not just within the context of a math class, but also when considering student and adult learning in general.  When I reflect upon the idea of task predicting performance, often times when I have worked with my staff and students in the past, I would present a problem and even a few possible solutions that I thought might work.  To utilize my good pal Bill Ferriter's use of Twitter hashtags, I might call myself


Not only was I shutting down any creativity in terms of the solutions that might arise, I was presenting the problem as I saw it and possibly even creating a kind of dependency on the fact that I, Principal of the school, would have a solution that we could all use.  Once again,


On the eve of my going in to my new school, I must be continually cognizant of the fact that
  • most real-life problems don't just have signs on them saying "here is the problem"
  • most answers to those real-life problems aren't just written in a nearby textbook on the pages after the appendix
  • the way to create problem-solvers (students or adults) is not to provide the problem and possible solutions but rather to ask shorter questions and have the problem-solvers synthesize the problems and hypothesize and investigate solutions through a variety of lenses and perspectives.
As much as it is my tendency to want to jump in with what I feel are reasonable options to deal with the issue at hand, sometimes I truly do need to 'be less helpful'!

Check out Dan Meyer's TED talk--I think it's brilliant!


  1. Outstanding message here Cale! Mindset, lifelong learning, problem-based learning all come to mind as I read this. Problem identifying is a valuable skill. Dan has a knack, or gift, for using natural curiosity to spark inquiry. It is more important for today's educators to ask good questions than to have all of the answers. Best wishes this year - thanks for the knowledge and inspiration.

  2. I love this post, Cale!

    As leaders, it is important to try to give staff their wings and let them fly. They need to have ownership over their own learning, challenges, and failures. If we "save" them or supply them with what we think they need, then, like our students, how will they become self-sufficient life-long learners? We want the educators in our building to be able to continue with their goals when we are no longer at that school. If we continue to provide solutions for them, then they will not be able to problem solve or effectively collaborate without us present. I wrote a similar blogpost recently about something similar. So, yes, I agree, we need to help less.

  3. Great post. In our inquiry-based model school, I strive to help my students learn to think and problem-solve without my help. We talk a lot about preparation for learning, and it is often a huge struggle for kids to learn to be independent. There is so much micromanaging of kids in our world - they're told what to do nearly every second of the day. I love that our kids have the freedom to THINK and that they also learn about the responsibility that comes with that freedom. I've never enjoyed teaching as much as I do now! If I'm doing my job, they need less and less help from me.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

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