Telling You the Answer Isn’t the Answer

by Rhett Allain, from Wired, 10/18/13

Students are under the impression that when they are stuck and confused, they are doing something wrong. Think of it this way: What if you went to the gym to work out but you didn’t get sweaty and you weren’t sore or tired? You would probably feel like you didn’t get any exercise. The same is true for learning. Confusion is the sweat of learning.

If I just tell them the answer, that would end the struggle. What if a person was having trouble doing a pull up for exercise. Instead of giving them some other exercise, I could help them by doing the pull up for that person. Right? No, that wouldn’t be useful. However, if I push on the person’s feet a little bit they can still struggle and still exercise. This is what I try to do in [my class] discussions. Instead of flat out answering the question, I often ask other questions for students to consider.

It’s not their fault, but students often visualize learning as a series of things they can put on flash cards. Their version of learning goes something like this:

  • The instructor is gate keeper of knowledge. The instructor has all the answers.
  • During class, the instructor hands out answers to students who then write these answers down.
  • After a while, there is a test. During the test, the students return the answers that the instructor gave them.

Why would students think like this? Probably because all too often this model of learning agrees with what they see.

When I don’t tell the students the answer, they think it’s a messed up class. It’s just like Daniel and Mr. Miyagi (from the original Karate Kid). In case you haven’t seen this movie, here is a quick synopsis.

  • Daniel gets beat up.
  • Mr. Miyagi knows karate.
  • Daniel convinces Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate.
  • Johnny sweeps the leg.
  • Crane kick TO THE FACE.

When Daniel first shows up to Mr. Miyagi’s posh residence, Mr. Miyagi has him do all sorts of crazy stuff–wax the car, sand the deck, paint the fence. Finally Daniel gets fed up. This isn’t the way you teach karate! This is how you get dumb kids to do all your chores. Of course, it turns out that Mr. Miyagi does indeed know what he is doing. In fact, he is like the Yoda of karate. Daniel learns some awesome karate moves and wins the tournament.

I’m Mr. Miyagi. Students need to wax the car.

Students still don’t believe me. They think that if I just tell them the answer then all will be right in the world. They are wrong. Well, they are right if the questions are silly. However if we use real questions then I can’t tell them the answer…. If learning were as simple as me telling the answer to students, I would surely do that. Instead, I am Mr. Miyagi.  And do you know what’s really awesome?  That moment when students realize they don’t really need me and they know the answer and they know WHY they know the answer.

Rhett Allain is an Associate Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University. Sometimes he takes things apart and can’t put them back together.

Wisdom worth sharing...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on TumblrEmail this to someonePrint this page

Comments are closed.