Saturday, July 26, 2008

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

But you can't make them drink. Here's another rhyme: You can read a kid a book, but you can't make them think.

Yes, you can. Of course you can. I have been working now for nearly a month with some remedial students for Grade 9 science. This is a trait I have noticed among many of the students. When I ask this a student a question, they reflexively answer as quickly as they can. They also answer questions in this way in writing. Often they answer incorrectly, sometimes using information related to my question. When asked a question in a class discussion, many of them answer "I don't know," and even when I coach them on how to think about the question, or where to look in their books to answer the question, they hold the line at "I don't know" and look frustrated and angry that I would persist in getting them to find an answer.

I have been looking for reasons for students answering as fast as they can without thinking, or refusing to think about a question. Here are some of my thoughts:

Speed = Smart

We as a culture believe and promote the idea that a smart person is able to answer questions not just accurately, but faster than other people. Game shows are based on it, and it is taught in schools. We as teachers call on the students that raise their hands first. We as teachers answer questions when students don't answer or raise their hands after only a few seconds. I am guilty of this too! A First Nations teacher taught me that during meetings of important people of a clan or nation, people who spoke quickly to be the first to suggest an answer were not looked upon favourably as they obviously didn't put a lot of thought into it.


We as a culture reward right answers over effort. This makes some students afraid to try for fear of getting it wrong.

The Easy Way Out

Our education system is set up so that students can't fail until high school. Therefore, if a student doesn't know an answer, by not answering it and refusing to attempt to answer, they are rewarded by being told the answer, and we move on. Isn't that like continuing to pay someone for a job they aren't doing, but giving them stern looks that they better do their job next week or else we will continue to pay them?

Don't get me wrong. I don't want my students to fail. I want them all to know the answers to science and math problems. I don't want to make things impossibly hard for them. Sometimes students don't know the answer.

So how can I equip them with the skills an attitudes that will help them find the answers, or at least be more successful searchers?

How I plan to make kids think:

Not taking hands up in class - asking and expecting everyone to perform when I call on them.

Not accepting a reflexive "I don't know" - but instead ask them what kind of help they want to search for the question. Maybe like a gameshow we can offer "lifelines" such as 1 ask a friend, 1 peek at the book, and 1 change the question.

Wait time - making the kids wait and think before answering. Also as the teacher I could wait more. This year I had a student who when given 60 seconds, got the right answer 8 of 10 times (actual numbers). You try waiting 60 seconds; the class starts to feel uncomfortable too. Let's change that.

Making the kids talk about it - And let's reward those who do talk with their peers about the topic and stay on topic. Let's reward them with marks.

I don't have all the answers, but I want to try these ideas. If there is anyone out there who has tried these ideas, write me. If you have something else to contribute, write me. Let's start picturing what change in our practice actually looks like, so we don't forget it in the heat of the lesson.


Mrs. Holder said...

I will be interested to hear about the results of your goals. You might also check out Power Teaching at I think that is the correct url. You can go to and click on the link in my blog list.

I added your blog to that list as well.

Catherine said...

I have had some success with reluctant kids by giving them a laptop computer to type on. Not just a word document but using Hyperstudio for example. They love the creativity of that program even more than power point and will actually sit and write down what they know about a topic or create hide/show answers to questions that I give them. Also, my kids enjoyed telling the world what they think using wikispaces this year. Another fun web 2.0 tool is Voice Thread where you can upload pictures and ask the class to comment on them. I thought they would be shy but instead everyone enjoyed commenting on pictures taken during class of the lab we worked on. You can even take pictures of a student's math work and ask students to find the mistake. Have them comment on the correct way to find the solution on the Voice Thread. Here are some links:
(This is our wiki with a Voice Thread embedded.)
I also love your lifelines idea! They could pick a life line friend in class ahead of time. I think part of the secret is the effort you are making. The students see all the ways you are approaching the problem and come to believe that you really do care about their response. When you insist on answers in complete sentences, for example, they know you are actually listening to their ideas.