Saturday, May 4, 2013

Being Right vs. Doing Right

"Telling isn't teaching" is a common saying (at least in the U.S.) among mathematics educators.  Unfortunately, the default model for a "great" teacher is the one who is charming, exciting, entertaining orator.  Many subproblems arise out of the problem of having to reset society's image of "great teacher."  In this post I talk about the subproblem of being right versus doing right.

Let's compare two different ways to address a student being stuck on a problem.  One aspect of being right is giving right answers.  It is argued that giving answers too quickly isn't the best for learning.
  • Teacher 1:  "The answer is seven. Let me explain..."
  • Teacher 2:  "Show me what you tried... Have you considered looking at this part again.  It doesn't make sense to me..."
Being right versus doing right has another facet.  It sometimes shows up when we notice struggle.

  • Teacher 1: "I'm frustrated my students didn't learn X. I show this to them on more than one occasion, and they just don't get it."
  • Teacher 2: "I know my students are stuck on X, so I'm going to ask these tasks and have students think about...  in the next class..."
Teacher 1 is right in the sense that the topic was explained, and probably explained logically correctly and clearly.  Thus Teacher 1 is right.  But doing right is based on a sense of responsibility to helping students and avoiding judgments about what students are "good or bad at."  The job at hand still exists - students need to learn something that they aren't getting.  

Doing right means figuring out what the learning issue is and then addressing it in a way that students come to their own conclusions and resolution.  Teacher 2 provides a learning experience that engages students to make sense of the issues, problem solve and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.  The role of the instructor, then, consists of problem posing/task creation, listening, asking guiding questions, utilizing standard teaching strategies (pair or group work), and providing a scaffold (via hints, highlighting a illustrative example, directing students towards a concept or strategy, fostering a discussion around a pertinent idea).  

In academics, being right is a significant part of the business.  It's what the search for knowledge is about.  Thus it is understandable to fall into the trap of "being right" in the classroom. Shifting the focus to actions and doing right, however, is better for student learning.  Doing right is really right.