Learning to learn – Why we won’t sit with one student for 75 minutes


We do not ‘spoon-feed’ our students.

As they progress through year-levels, successful students are those who ‘help themselves’ rather than relying on an overworked and possibly disinterested classroom teacher to explain everything they need to know.

When we focus on building independent learners rather than just imparting content, there are long-term benefits for students which are often not appreciated in the short-term.

‘Teachers gonna teach’

Even though we love to teach, when a student asks for help, we must resist our instinct to immediately sit down with them and start teaching the content. We are more valuable to students if we instead train them to first try helping themselves (ie, look at an example, or a page reference, or find an explanation in a textbook or online). It is these skills that enable them to be successful learners in the +99% of the week that we are not there to jump in and help.

If we automatically teach every time they ask, they’ll come to believe that the only way to learn is for someone else to give them the information. They will develop a dependency on external help rather than developing habits of self-sufficiency and realising that they can learn for themselves.

Asking for help

That said, we also DO want students to learn to ask for help whenever it is warranted, because in a classroom environment students must not let themselves slip under the radar of a busy teacher. But we must NOT be complicit in the bad habit of asking for help immediately when they see something they don’t know. Sometimes, when students ask for help, they haven’t even bothered to read the question. If we jump in and teach in such cases, we’re making them worse learners. And if we are already sitting beside them, they don’t have the chance to practice asking for help.

How we teach

When content teaching is warranted, we assist as necessary… we give them information one-to-one in a way that makes sense to that individual, and we guide them through practice questions together. But to avoid overloading them, and to allow for consolidation, as soon as they are able to continue independently, we let them practice the new skill solo.

We allow students to make their own mistakes to learn from, and show them how to check their own work. We monitor students subtly, unobtrusively, and pop back in if we sense confusion or too much hesitancy. But we save sitting with students for extended periods for when it’s truly necessary, so as not to foster dependency

Building brave learners

There are those students who have grown used to the comfort and safety of an adult sitting with them as they work, to jump in and stop any mistakes before they happen. These are the students who need us most of all to foster their independence, bravery and resilience in the face of new content. They have learned all sorts of ways to manipulate adults into doing what makes their life more comfortable ‘in the short term’, but these behaviours aren’t all conducive to academic growth in the long term. “Be brave,” we say. “Let’s have a go and make some mistakes. Mistakes can be great!”

Mistakes are not evil

In school and in life, there is not someone stopping us from making mistakes. Unfortunately, many students hold the ingrained idea that mistakes are inherently bad. Perhaps the terminology of ‘wrong’ and ‘incorrect’ is overstepping its bounds… creating anxiety about doing anything that doesn’t match the answer section.

However, mistakes are golden opportunities for learning, for adjusting our current understanding. If we are not making mistakes, we are probably not learning much. So, we remind students at every opportunity that mistakes are ok – when we make one, we can evaluate what our brain did so that we can change what it will do next time.

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About the Author: Dan Blore
Dan Blore manages and teaches at Extended Learning Centres. He has spent 20 years in education, having studied secondary education at University of the Sunshine Coast. He has taught in Australia and Germany and studied at university in Italy. He most enjoys teaching and studying mathematics and languages, both of which he focused on at university.

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