Without a doubt, every student has his own learning style. We’re all unique. So the ways we acquire new skills and knowledge are often unique. Some people learn better from reading about a task, others learn better from watching others do the task, and others still learn better from tinkering solely on their own.
But there’s one thing that’s universal. At some point, the guide needs to step out of view of the jungle behind him so his tour group can see the animals for themselves.
Teachers, get out of the way!
Teachers are innately a source of authority in a student’s life since they know more and are usually older. So it’s easy to become submissive to or dependent on a teacher. But we don’t want students to be dependent, do we? We want them to be independent! One way to encourage independence is to make students feel equal to their teachers. We can do this by making it clear that knowledge is free for students to gain through experience and failure, that teachers aren’t the sole gatekeepers of knowledge.
-Ken Robinson in 'Creative Schools'
How can teachers facilitate learning? By getting out of the way!
Teachers, stop asking questions and expecting the right answer to be parroted by your students. Inspire and empower your students to ask the questions as much as find the answers to them. Let them get messy. Let them make mistakes. Let them be wrong. Let them fail. Let them figure things out on their own.
It can be scary as a teacher to take this hands-off, “you’re on your own” approach to teaching. Failure is obviously uncomfortable. But there’s also a series of existential questions hidden deep in this approach. If teachers are supposed to step back and let the kids work out the learning process on their own at times, what is their purpose then? “Who am I? What am I good for?” teachers may start to wonder. Perhaps the fear of not being useful or not being needed prevents teachers from taking a step back. We all want to be useful, after all. We all want to be needed. This is a desire that is universally human.
But as Ken Robinson said, the role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. So don’t worry about how many power point slides you put up, or how much of the textbook you do or don’t get through, or how long your lessons are, or how much homework you assign. Those things aren’t a measure of your value as a teacher, they’re simply tools in the toolbox of teaching.
If you’re a college kid preparing for an exam, it doesn’t matter if you spend 1 hour getting ready or 10. What matters is the quality of time you spend studying, how engaged and attentive you are. And if you’re working, it doesn’t matter (ideally) how long you spend on a task. What matters is that you do it properly and as quick as you can without sacrificing quality. So why don’t we look at teaching the same way? Teachers shouldn’t be slaves to statistics and figures and test scores. They should be doing things that are (arguably) less measurable. They should be inspiring, empowering, and fostering independence and creativity. And they usually do this best when they take a step back and get out of the way.
Helicopter Parents and Codependency
Parents are sorts of teachers too. Most parents want to protect their kids from the dangers and uncertainty of life, and so they often become what’s known as, “helicopter parents.” These helicopter parents are actually quite common. They control every aspect of their child’s life and have a habit of instilling fear for just about everything. Overprotective parents aren’t selective about instilling fear either. They’ll discourage you from sharing private information online just as much (and passionately!) as they discourage you from crawling under the table or going down the slide backwards (because you might hit your head!). While they surely have good intentions, helicopter parents only seem to create a culture of fear. And fear is only inhibitive.
So parents, especially helicopter and overprotective parents, need to get out of the way. If your kid wants to crawl under the table, you can certainly give an account of your experience with crawling under tables. But let the kid live. Let him learn through his own experiences. Let him fail and flounder. If you must, inform him, but never scare him.
According to this article by Psychology Today, kids with helicopter parents are more prone to having low self-esteem, trust issues, and anxiety disorders. They’re also more likely to be “people-pleasers.” The two most important things that the kids of helicopter parents lack is autonomy and confidence. These are critical qualities! So I have to insist: Teachers (and parents), get out of the way!
A personal anecdote
One of the things that I learned on my first ski trip was how helpful it is when your teacher gives you space to work things out for yourself. For the first few hours of skiing, I was awful at it. I would go backwards instead of forward, left instead of right, and my butt dragged along the ground more than my skis did. My instructor tried a million different things to help me ski properly. He tried to explain the mechanics and physics behind the skis. He tried shouting out directions. He tried having me watch other people who were better than me. At one point he even used pizza as a teaching tool (“Your feet should look like PIZZA, Leisa! Pizza! Pizza!”).
Eventually the learning group got tired of waiting on me and insisted that the instructor spend half of the time with me alone and the other half of the time with the rest of the group. So the instructor yelled “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!” at me for an hour, and then wished me luck traversing the mountain on my own. And the most bizarre thing happened. By the end of my solo hour, I had developed complete control of my body and the movements required for skiing down the hill without falling.
Because the instructor wasn’t telling me when I was doing something wrong, I had to figure it out and correct it on my own. When I went to fast or too slow, I had to think about it and experiment with different things on my own. I had a good foundation of techniques to try (leaning backward or forward, moving the skis together or apart, straight skis or “pizza” skis, etc) because of the hour the instructor spent telling me what to do. But it was my task to actually test each technique and understand how it all worked. I also felt less pressure because the learning group wasn’t waiting on me and the instructor wasn’t shouting things at me.
Because the instructor got out of my way, I was able to develop both the skills and confidence necessary for basic skiing.
So I have to insist…
Giving space to learners is absolutely essential to the learning process. Teachers of all kinds need to recognize that there is a time when they need to let go of their student and give him the freedom to learn for himself. This is the only way to foster independence and autonomy. And as crazy as it sounds, it really works. Students don’t always need the teacher to guide them through the jungle. Sometimes they need to actually get a glimpse of the lions for themselves – without the teacher’s head or arms in their line of sight.
So teachers, understand that it’s nothing personal. But please, get out of the way!