Shut up.

The best advice that I’ve gotten in my short career has been to let the kids do the work.

I was working hard, lecturing, demonstrating, asking questions, and generally working myself like a rented mule. My Head of School observed me and among the notes from her visit was the simple phrase: “you’re working very hard.”  Puffed with pride at what was obviously a compliment from she-whose-name-is-on-the-bottom-of-my-paycheck, I stepped into her office at Recess to discuss her observation comments and bask in the glow of her praise.

“I’m concerned”, she said

This isn’t going to end well, I thought.

“Why, I thought you liked what I was doing?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t. The only person engaged in the lesson was you. The questions you ask don’t get any wait time and are all low-level, one-word, right or wrong questions.”


“They will learn by doing the work. They will learn by wanting to struggle with the ideas and you can tell that they’re engaged by the number and quality of the questions they ask. Make the kids do the work!” she said. “That’s the work you do: coming up with ways to make them do the work.”

That was three years ago.  I’ve gotten better then, but I’m still learning. Let me give you an example.

Last Friday, I set out 7 small plastic dishes with washers, bolts, and wingnuts in them. Some of the dishes just had washers, or bolts, some had a combination of wingnuts and washers, or washers and bolts, and some had a washer on the bolt and a wingnut screwed on, or a bolt and wingnut screwed on. You get the idea.

I wrote on the board that each object represents an atom or a molecule, and that they were to go around the room, silently, and investigate each dish, and identify whether the collection of objects was an element, a mixture, or a compound. I had them make a data table and gave them five minutes to look at all the dishes. I did not define any of these terms, or give them any other instruction.

Then, using the techniques that we’re developing for classroom discussion (see “Little Steps and Big Ideas“), they discussed which collection was which thing. I sat on the sidelines and prompted them by revoicing: “so you mean…”, and asking “do you agree with ______, and why, or why not?” I listened for logical reasoning, I listened for the use of evidence to support an argument, and I listened as students tried to put this in context with what they already knew. At no time did I say that anyone was right or wrong. The closest I came to that was to ask them to use their definition to classify the collection in another dish.  By the end of class, not only had every student contributed in a meaningful way, but the class had devised a working definition as good as any text. I’m going to check that with an exit slip on Monday…

I wish that I had a picture of the look of disappointment on their faces when I told them that class was over! And this was a Friday, C-Block!

Ken Bain, in his book: “what the best college teachers do” (Harvard University Press, 2004) relates that the latest learning science tells us that “knowledge is constructed, not received.”  That “highly effective educators…because they believe that students must use their existing mental models to interpret what they encounter, (these educators) think about what they do as stimulating construction, not ‘transmitting knowledge.'” Dan Meyer talks about modeling curiosity by asking questions, and about creating a state of puzzlement in students’ minds. “Your students will come to understand you prize curiosity in general and their curiosity in particular.” This is why I show 101 Questions to my math class every day.

Every kid is curious. Every kid, no matter what they tell you, likes to learn new things. So shut up.

The lesson with the bolts and washers was not my own. Many thanks to the dedicated and brilliant science teachers at Flinn Scientific Inc. for their lesson: “Classifying Matter: A “Nuts-and-Bolts Demonstration”

About gblakney

Middle School Mathematics Teacher, passionate EdTech user who loves to experiment with new methods and tools in the classroom. Following the lead of Dan Meyer and Jo Boaler, I create a safe place for kids to discover the fun and beauty of maths. I use Number Talks and Groupwork to make maths accessible for all of my students. I enjoy Mathematics and I'm enthusiastic about teaching; the kids really respond to that.
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2 Responses to Shut up.

  1. I like this method of teaching and am looking forward to a great school year with you as my teacher. This critical thinking idea is a great strategy. A good article about DIY electronics and hands-on learning heavily based on science and electrical engineering is in the September 2013 Popular Science article about Quin Etnyre, his New Qtechknow STEM curriculum, and the Arduino revolution. I will bring it into school tomorrow so you can see it. –Mitchell

  2. gblakney says:

    Dan Meyer’s Ten Design Principles for Engaging Math Tasks are here:

I'm interested in what you think on this issue...

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