What do we do when we need help?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about this.  When we come to something we don’t know how to do, what do we do?  I can think of 4 or 5 ways people react that I’ve seen recently.

  • Stop whatever you’re doing.  Not sure how to proceed puts a total stop to the work you’re doing.  Move to doing something else.
  • Ask someone else to do it for you.
  • Ask someone else how to do it.
  • Try to solve the problem yourself – this might mean clicking around, googling an answer, attempting what you think it might be and iterating until it works.
  • Wait for someone to show you how or do it for you.  Until then, nothing gets done.

Now, I think we all vary between these a lot, depending on the activity, who we are around, what our timelines are and how important the task is.  I’d even argue that there is a time and a place for each of these, some (hopefully) less frequently.

What is your go-to response?  Think about how many times a day you come across something you don’t know how to do or an answer you’re unsure of.  How do you react most of the time?   What helps you finish the work you’re doing the most?

What about your students?  Have you put in place any structure or routines to help your students learn how to solve problems they encounter?

We talk often about how our goal in school is to prepare students for the world outside of high school.  That might mean college, jobs, and more.  It most certainly includes encountering tasks or information that they don’t know.  Helping our students develop habits that they can fall back on in these situations is critical to their future success.  If the only habit that students develop is to ask a teacher for help, what do they do on the job when there isn’t a boss available to direct them?

I think about how little choice most students have in how presentations are organized, developed and presented.  Often times students are given a project sheet with requirements, a rubric with requirements and all questions are answered by the teacher on the way to presentations.   In real life situations, an employee might be directed to find and present a solution to a problem.  I think about all of the work I do every day in schools and no one tells me every single requirement.

So what can we do to change this reliance on the teacher as the sole source of answers?

  • Build in student choice and add freedom to assignments.
  • Grade holistically with rubrics, rather than using a rubric as a checklist of requirements
  • Answer questions with questions that prompt your students to think and solve the problem on their own.
  • Help students formulate specific questions.  One of my biggest frustrations was when students say “I can’t do this.”  I would often answer with “What part is giving you trouble?”  Being able to articulate exactly what you need help with will narrow down the help you need.
  • Ask 3 Before Me is a standard in most elementary classrooms.  Ask 3 of your classmates before asking the question to the teacher.  Andrea Halverson proposes a new, updated version of Ask 3 B4 Me here.   Ask classmates, google, and check youtube for a video to explain.
  • BreakoutEDU is a great low-stakes way to practice “productive struggle.”  This is the idea that it’s good for us to struggle to find answers sometimes.  It teaches us that we CAN do (when we so often default to CAN’T) and forces us to use our resources.  There are digital breakouts here that require zero purchases but put groups of students into the cycle of productive struggle quickly.  Debriefing is where the real power of learning from this struggle happens.

I always say (and think) that there are many lessons we can learn from our counterparts at other grade levels (Primary, Upper Grades, Middle, High, Post-secondary) and this is one that I really believe upper grade teachers have a responsibility to help our students learn before they head into the world.


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