Guest Blogger | Jessica Allen, Teacher of Mathematics in Puebla, Mexico

Have you ever noticed, as a teacher, how much power you have over student responses? Students often try to look to me to reveal solutions. They tilt their head a little bit and start asking if the answer is five while the end of the question gets a higher pitch. They look at my face and change their answer based on what they see. The slight quiver of the eyebrow signals to them that it cannot possibly be five. A smile validates them and signifies that it is. And the students just keep playing this game until they settle on what they think I am hoping for. This effort of trying to find the correct answer by gauging when the teacher is most pleased is damaging to student learning and problem-solving. The responses that we as teachers give in these situations are of vital importance, which can either lead students to continue finding answers through social cues or instead teach themselves to learn.

A Teaching Trap—The Hunt for Social Solutions

The seeking for approval from an authority in school work begins from a young age and continues throughout life if teachers do not provide methods that break students out of this cycle. Even before school age, many young children begin to understand that their work is decent if it is approved by a parent or other adult. Creativity may be encouraged or thwarted. Consider a young child showing their drawing of an animal with a sky to you, but it is unclear what they have drawn. You may suggest they have drawn a dog and the child sees that a dog pleases you, so they say yes. Or, you may ask the child to explain their drawing and allow them to share their perspective with you. If they see that their perspective pleases you, then they may be encouraged to keep creating.

This searching for answers that please continues in higher grade levels. In my high school math courses, when dealing with linear equations, students often seek validation from me, whom they may view as an authority over mathematics. Pupils are provided a context that gives a linear pattern and a question may be asked about how many dollars their character will have after a certain number of days. If students know I, as a teacher, am available for help, many of them will guess at an answer and see if they are close. However, the students have the pattern available for them to use. They may also check their solution with an equation and use a graph as well. There is no reason for me to validate their responses when they have such power to check themselves. The best response I have for students is to ask them whether their solution makes sense in the given context. Yet, I could easily discontinue their learning process by hinting to them the solution when they first try to seek my approval. This shows that I, as a teacher, can choose to invest in their self-learning or their desire for easy answers.

Encourage Investigation, Don’t Validate

As an instructor, denying social responses teaches children to use the text and builds critical thinking and the ability to defend processes. The students constantly seeking my approval of their guesses are the same students who have difficulties working on homework because there is no authority available to hint them to the finish line. These individuals have allowed their critical thinking and problem-solving to be damaged in a way that makes them feel incompetent in resolving issues on their own.

In an effort to change this, I try to focus on the process and always ask the student to relate their solution to the context. When I do this, students are encouraged to make sense of the problems on their own. For example, in my physics course, a common error that individuals have involves finding the time at which a projectile shot into the air will hit the ground. In many cases, students get negative solutions for time, meaning that the item will hit the ground before it is even thrown up. Students may look to me and ask whether their solution is correct. When I challenge them to explain their solution and why it does or does not make sense in the context of the problem, I am putting the responsibility back onto them with their mathematics as the tool for evidence.

Leading students to realizing themselves that a negative solution does not make sense is a huge step. It encourages them in their ability to analyze the context. When they do this, time after time, they learn that they have the power to make sense of solutions and do not need to rely on me as an authority over mathematics. Asking students why their solutions make sense also allows them to either find their errors or defend a correct process.

Looking for more classroom strategies to improve student engagement? Click here for creative ways to get started.

Classroom Strategies—Putting it in the Kids’ Hands

Teachers must make it a priority to keep from being hint givers so that students may succeed in key academic areas. To combat the habit of seeking hints, when I start a problem with students, it often makes sense to talk about it and come up with a possible realm of solutions before even beginning. Students benefit from critically attacking a problem before even picking up a pencil. Then, students may begin to work out a problem. When they finish, they are encouraged to consider how their response relates to their expectations. They then consider whether their solution makes sense and may re-check their process to search for errors. Any solutions should then be checked. In some circumstances, a teacher may ask them to compare it to a previous pattern or situation and explain commonalities or differences. This is especially helpful in art or history contexts where new scenarios often mirror old.

In some settings, even teaching students to use their resources may be beneficial for self-learning. Instruct students to find credible sources. Teach them how to use a search engine. In the end, these may lead to the student finding their own solutions rather than relying on you as the teacher to provide them. In all subjects, this type of critical discussion with students helps them to problem solve. In areas such as reading and history, it gives students skills to process information without automatically believing everything they hear from others. In science, this preserves honesty and limits bias in experiments. In general, it allows students to start thinking for and teaching themselves, which is what we hope for as our students step up to be the leaders in the next generation.

Teachers should always look for long-term solutions and prepare their students for the future. By using several methods that encourage students to engage in self-learning, teachers are investing in the future. It may be tempting in moments to provide an instant solution, but the more a student works for the answer, the more apt that student will be in problem-solving. This is what will serve them for a lifetime.

“It has allowed parents to have a clearer picture of what is going on with their child’s progress.” Joanne K., Dean of Students
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