Stop telling students the answers


Students learn better when we ask questions before we provide the answers.

They learn better if we ask them to generate their own strategies, interpretations and ideas before we tell them how to do things — whether it’s how to use an economic model, solve an algebra problem or write an essay.

I learned this nugget of wisdom when I first read Make it Stick last year, but it was really brought home by Daniel Schwartz’s and John Bransford’s 1998 paper titled “A Time for Telling,” which was recently referred to me.

Reading “A Time for Telling” is making me want to toss out my lesson plans for AP Microeconomics and start over. I won’t — there’s no time for that right now, and I’m already integrating this approach into many of my lessons — but you’ll see why I want to.

One of the problems with our traditional, Madeline Hunter-style lessons, where we explain new learning, then require students to practice and apply it in class and independently, is that we teach everything as an answered question. There’s nothing to be curious about, nothing to explore because we already have all of the answers.

All the students need to do is know what we know, not think for themselves.

According to the paper, “When telling occurs without readiness, the primary recourse for students is to treat the new information as ends to be memorized rather than as tools to help them perceive and think.”

Yes, that’s exactly how our students regard most of what we teach them. Ends to be memorized.

Furthermore, Schwartz and Bransford explain, students think they get it when we explain, but they miss important subtleties because we haven’t asked them to really think.

I just had that conversation in a student-parent conference last week. The student told me, “It all makes sense when you explain it, but when I go home and try to apply it, I can’t understand it.”

That’s my failure right there, not forcing him to think and allowing him to just listen.

Tomorrow, I will teach my AP Microeconomics students what a monopoly market graph looks like. I’ll walk them through it, show them how it is and isn’t like perfect competition. I’ll make sure they see where each part comes from, and we’ll build it step by step together.

At least, that’s what I had planned. A better strategy might be to remind them what the perfect competition graphs look like, ask them to review all of the differences between the two market structures, then give them some time to figure out on their own what a monopoly graph would look like.

I might get some crazy responses, but I’m guessing that exercise would generate a little more interest when I show them what economists use as a monopoly model.

The biggest barrier is that I already posted the notes online, so some students have probably already looked at the monopoly graph. Then again, most of them aren’t that eager to work ahead.

Questions before answers. It will frustrate them, but I think I’ll try it.


One thought on “Stop telling students the answers

  1. Amy Shrout

    Hi, Martha–

    Back in the mid-90s I attended a workshop in which the Constructivist Approach to learning was featured. As the name suggests, it states that learning is an active process where students construct knowledge. After the workshop, I revised my lesson on the supply curve. We do a quick review of the demand curve and then in small groups, students construct the supply curve. They regroup to share and revise ideas. Finally, we have the groups share their constructed supply curve to the full class. They explain why it looks the way it looks. Most often, the graphs are different from one another, which affords the opportunity for greater discussion. We talk about what they’ve actually illustrated versus what they intended to illustrate. It’s a good opportunity to set kids straight on the definition of supply as well. The kids really take ownership of their “constructions.” Even the ones who are off on their understanding at the beginning have a much better understanding at the end of the lesson. It works so well that I use it regularly when introducing new graphs.

    Like you referenced, technology can trip things up. Many kids don’t want to be wrong or don’t want to take the time to think it through, so I impose a “no devices” policy when doing Constructivist Lessons. A real throw back!

    Love reading your blog! Always inspiring!

    Hope you are well, Amy Shrout


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