Short post: Having seen this going on a lot, I tweeted this yesterday and it seemed to resonate with people:
There are no hard and fast rules in teaching and teachers need to judge when to ask and when to tell. It can be useful to have a sense of students’ prior knowledge; it’s important to make them think and make connections. However, the point here is that, very often, it is perfectly sensible to tell students things upfront and yet teachers feel weirdly inhibited from doing so. I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who have told me they were trained to believe that this was wrong.
Let me just give a couple of examples.
Imagine you want everyone to know the names and capitals of the Baltic States and this is not something you have taught yet. Typically, the exchange goes something like:
- Does anyone know the names of the Baltic States?
- Anyone? There are three of them. Near Russia. One begins with L…?
- You mean Liechtenstein. No, close but that’s not right. Anyone else? No?. Ok, let me tell you.
The effect this has is to sow confusion. It also sets up a culture where children think that bits of knowledge are meant to be just known – magically, as if it is just chance, luck, random. And it rewards guessing. Even if someone answers and gives a perfect response, listing all three countries, it sets up a problem in that the teacher might think this knowledge is widely held and then skimps on the detailed explanation. It could be that other children are left impressed by their classmate but still shaky in their own knowledge. What was the third one?
If a teacher determines that a set of information is likely to be challenging or new knowledge for the majority, then it is absolutely sensible to give the basic knowledge upfront and then invest time in probing it.
Something like this:
- You’re all going to need to know the names of three countries called The Baltic States. Some of you might have heard of them. North to South they are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Here’s a map:
This gives everyone security in the knowledge at hand. It’s not guessing. The target knowledge is absolutely clear and laid out. The point is that students now learn it.
- Let’s say them together: Estonia. Latvia. Lithuania. Lith – you – ania.
- Can you see the capital stars? These are Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius
- Now, use the map to match them up, then in your pairs test each other.
- Michael – let’s hear your pairings, all three…..; Lisa – did he get them right?
- Now, without looking them up, see if you can label this blank map of the region:
You get the point. Go direct to the base knowledge, tell it, spell it out… and then use it as a platform for questioning around learning it and applying it. This gets you much deeper, more quickly, with everyone. It also reinforces good learning strategies: find out what you need to learn and put effort into the mental processes that secure that learning.
Of course, once you’ve taught something, asking recall questions later is absolutely right. And there is the issue of making students think. It was always one of my teacher mantras with physics and maths: I’m not asking you to know, I’m asking you to think. Nobody ‘knows’ 13 x 37, they work it out. Students need to get a feel for where the boundary lies between things you should be able to recall and thinks you need to work out. So, let’s not get all black and white here.