Iatrogenic Teaching – Firsthand Evidence II

Early in the semester, after presenting my students with a challenging problem, I have exchanges with them similar to following:

Student (raising hand): “I don’t know how to do this.”

Me: “Well, I believe you.”

Student (puzzled): “I don’t understand how I’m supposed to get the answer.”

Me: “Well, you have to think.”

Student (frustrated): “I tried already.  I can’t do it.”

Me: “It’s a hard problem, you have to think for more than a couple of minutes.”

Student (defiantly): “You’re the teacher. It’s your job to show us how to do the problem.”

Me: “That’s not my job.  My job is to produce contributing citizens.”

The reason that the students want to be told how to get the answer is simply that this is what the student has experienced in academia.  This is what worked.  This is how they have been successful.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t develop their thinking skills.

It is no different from a football coach’s seeing a player that is struggling to deadlift 300 lbs going over and lifting the weight for him.  The coach knows that struggling with heavy weights is how players develop physical strength.  Teachers must understand that struggling with hard problems is how a student develops mental strength.

On another occasion I was giving a problem-solving workshop for a large group of high-school students that were visiting the university.  The students were from numerous schools and each group had a few chaperones.  I presented a challenging river-crossing problem and all the students were struggling with it in groups of three.  After about five minutes, one of the visiting teachers could not stand watching the students struggle any longer.  She went to a group of her students and walked them through the steps to solve the problem.  When the answer was achieved, she congratulated the students heartily.  “Yea!  You did it!  Congratulations!”  I then walked over and asked the students to show me the steps.  None could do it.  The teacher that showed them how to do it thought I was being unreasonable and mean.

In fact, the teacher’s interventionist behavior is nothing short of evil!  She is stealing the students’ opportunity to develop their problem-solving skills and preventing them from developing the ability to figure anything out for themselves.   She is sending the message that she is the expert and the students need her to show them what to do.  It is an insult to the students.

Some might rationalize her behavior with, “She was only trying to help.”  However, this is what makes it so insidious.  Knowing the answer is useless.  It is the struggling that is important.  When you are trying to solve a challenging Sudoku, would it make sense to have an “expert” telling you what numbers go in each box?? After about 20-30 minutes of intense thought and collaboration, the groups of high-school students gradually began to experience the thrill of uncovering the multiple-step solution that required NEW ideas.  Ideas that were generated in their own brains – not ideas that were put there by a teacher.  Eventually, all the teams experienced the joy of uncovering the solution – all except the one that got the iatrogenic help.