It’s a common scenario – when students in a class don’t understand something. The teachers try to explain it more clearly. But it’s seen that on occasions, a teacher explaining more does very little to offer clarity.

If a teacher’s explanation is to be considered as a major teaching tool, then it shows that the teachers are the primary dispensers of information, and the students are the consumers.

How can this be changed? What can be done for the students so that they don’t rely on the teachers? How can the thinking – teachers owning the learning to the student ownership – be changed?

Instead of showing them the way, it is recommended to provide the students with tools and time so that cognitive struggle is encouraged – this will get the students to do more, while you talk less.

Starting with struggle

According to J. Boaler, who is a math educator and a revolutionary researcher, the ‘struggle’ is important when mastering a concept or say a skill. Whenever any doubt arises in a classroom, the teachers can be quick on the situation and provides steps for the students to follow.

And as Boaler points out, this is where the problem starts – when the struggle is removed for the students. It also removes the cognitive struggle of the students, and which she mentions is quite integral to deep learning and understanding.

Boaler recommends that the teachers should try to shift the script and begin the lessons by asking the students to face and experience struggle. As a teacher, it’s up to them to explain to the students what they are doing, and how struggling with concepts will help the students to learn before providing them support. It is suggested to use an open-ended problem in maths, or you can also provide a solution but with a mistake in the work, and ask the students to analyze the error.

In other subjects, Boaler suggests making use of brain research that will encourage the students to try a task for a second or even a third time, or in some cases, persevere through writer’s block. As teachers, she recommends shifting the classroom culture in such a way that getting stuck and struggling to solve a problem is valued over getting to an answer right away.

Reducing the talk time of the teachers

Often ineffective classrooms, the students see themselves as their own teachers and as such, tackles a problem in their own way, and, the teachers too know the impact that their strategies can have on how a student learns.

In the words of Boaler, there are a few simple strategies that can help to shift the teacher from the position of a lecturer to that of a facilitator.

  • Consider asking a student to time your mini-lessons so that they are limited to 7 to 8 minutes and politely interrupt you if the allotted time passes away.
  • While coaching your students, Boaler suggests making use of video that will allow the students to learn at their own pace by watching direct instruction.
  • It is suggested to limit the initial instructions to 2 to 3 minutes, and leave the rest of the time to allow the students to work the problem in their own way, while you coach and provide encouraging feedback.
  • As the students struggle to solve the problem on their own, Boaler recommends observing them, and if necessary, offer them feedback so that they can revise. Tell the students that you are observing them and which will show the students that you value their struggle and the way they come to the solution at their own pace – this will show them that you value their work.

Ditching explanations and using questions instead

Students are bound to have difficulty with understanding concepts, and when that happens, as teachers, our first instinct is to explain them more clearly so that they can understand.

However, in the words of Boaler, that shouldn’t be the case – she suggests framing and asking questions to the students in such a way that will boost their cognitive way of understanding. She recommends keeping a list of questions ready to ask the students when in front of a class or say when working with a small group of students.

Slowing down and observing

Boaler recommends the teachers taking a bit of time from their busy schedule to dedicate to student learning. As teachers, she suggests giving the students complex tasks and watches the students – consider observing them, taking down notes on their behavior, and if necessary, even ask questions.

In the words of Boaler, the teachers should slow down and watch the students – this will help the teachers to gather evidence of learning and what, as teachers, they can do to plan their next steps.

Questions such as – “What can my students do right now? And where they need to be pushed next?” – should come to the teachers’ minds.

It is recommended to create a chart with the names of all students, including their particular behaviors that you have observed. Based on what data you have gathered, mini-lessons or even conferences can be encouraged.

As Boaler explains, observing the students and their behavior can help the teachers a lot, and they can then better inform their next steps to move towards the student ownership.

Providing non-teacher scaffolds

While struggling is an integral part of learning, but at times, the teachers expect the students to work independently too soon, and without any support, and when that happens, students will look up to the teacher for support immediately, and again, we are left with teacher-student co-dependence.

Boaler advises the teachers to create such a culture in the classroom that encourages the students to ask their classmates first before asking a teacher.

There are some simple non-teacher scaffolds that Coaler recommends –

  • Establishing a critical relationship between students and train them on how to provide feedback to each other.
  • When the students are ready to offer feedback to fellow classmates, it’s suggested that the teachers create “coach” name tags for the students to wear.
  • Asking students to teach their fellow students or even in small group concepts or strategies.

Reducing the time of how much a teacher talks, instead of providing answers right away encouraging struggle among the students by asking questions, observing the students’ behavior, providing non-teacher scaffolds to the students – all of these encourage the students to learn at their own pace. Purposefully do less as teachers so that it will push the students to do more with learning.