Giving Students Opportunities to “Figure It Out”

Categories: Writing

A few weeks ago I was in Nevada presenting to a group of teachers and administrators on best practices in the teaching of writing. During one of my sessions, I had an interaction with a group of teachers that has continued to linger in my mind. I thought I would take some time here to think aloud about it.

As I talked that morning, I could tell that a small group in the corner was not “with me.” This came to a head as I discussed nonfiction writing. As part of this conversation, I said that students were going to have to figure out how to divide big topics into subtopics. I had used the phrase “figure out” a great deal during the presentation. It turned out that it was this phrase, not the other content I had presented, that seemed to draw the ire of these teachers/administrators.

So as I was discussing nonfiction writing, there rose quite a commotion from their corner of the room. Lots of side conversations and scrunched-up faces. One of them finally raised their hand.

“I don’t want to be a naysayer,” she said. (By the way, when anyone says this, you know you are in trouble as a presenter.) “But you mean you have to teach them it. Right?”

“Tell me more about what you are thinking,” I replied. I was eager to hear where the hostility came from.

“Well,” she said, a bit indignantly, “You have to tell kids explicitly what you want them to do. They are not going to figure it out-you have to tell them. Then they will do it.”

“Yes, I see what you are saying,” I said. “We certainly have to teach them a lesson. Like how to divide up a big topic into subheadings. I might model it. We might look at how other authors do it. So yes-we have to teach them it. But in the end, students are still going to have to figure it out.”

I then finished with what for me is the most important point.

“Just because we teach students something does not mean that they can or will be able to do it. They have to figure it out. The figuring out comes from lots of writing, thinking, talking, and revising. That is where we need to focus the time in our lessons. It is never as simple as teach it and they do it.”

From their faces, I could see they were not too happy with my response. They were looking for a more directed way of teaching writing. Not the process approach I was advocating. But for me, this is a main tenet of what makes a lesson powerful. It is when the teacher understands that it is the student who has to do the sense-making. They have to do the talking, thinking, reading, and writing-the figuring it out necessary to make sense of the content we set up for them. Sure, in our role as teachers, we present the content as clearly and as interestingly as we can, but in the end it won’t make a bit of difference how fabulous our lesson presentation is, if students don’t figure it out.

For some of you this may seem like a simple issue of semantics. “Of course,” you say, “Students have to figure it out.” In my experience, however, it is a criticial issue. It actually points to a division in how we perceive teaching and learning. I don’t think they agree with my premise that giving students time to “figure things out” is just as important as the lesson content we teach. Some of our colleagues teach with a list of things to cover. We teach it, check it off, and move onto the next thing. Indeed many districts force us into that kind of instruction with tightly controlled pacing calendars. In this setting our job becomes information deliverers. The responsibility for all of the content and thinking rests on our shoulders.

Another view, and one that I support, is that we set up lessons so that students spend most of the time grappling with the big ideas we present. In this case, most of the lesson time is taken up with students thinking and collaborating. It is not centered on teacher talk.

Take a few moments the next time you look at a lesson. It can be one you teach or one you observe. Measure how much time is spent on the teacher delivering information and talking versus how much time students get to “figure things out.” I’ll bet you’ll be surprised. What do you think?

(Originally published April 1, 2010)