Giving Answers

How Answering Questions Could Be Detrimental to Learning

Getting a lot of questions from students is usually a sign of interest in a topic. But as a teacher, should you be jumping at every opportunity to answer these questions?

First let’s consider a question worth asking yourself- ‘what is my ultimate goal as a teacher:  Is it to dispense information or is it to be a cause of learning?’

Getting at the heart of how we truly learn was the lifetime pursuit of Dr. Caleb Gattegno, whose world-famous pedagogies are summarized as the “subordination of teaching to learning.”  Gattegno believed that learning is the same as self-learning, and ideally the teacher facilitates self-learning which is different than just the telling or giving of facts and information. 

In the classroom, this entails that the teacher create the conditions or “challenges” that inspire students to seek their own answers to questions.  Only under these conditions does learning actually have a chance to take place.

Dr.  Cecilia Bartoli, who for years trained other teachers in the Gattegno approaches, characterized her own shift in teaching as relying on “responsibility as a technique”.

In this context, she did not attempt to answer questions nor offer judgment about “right” or “wrong” answers. Instead, she throve to ensure problems were presented in a way where both her and her students could mutually explore all avenues in seeking solutions and “responding” adequately.

In applying this approach, Bartoli came to believe that answering a student’s question a breach of “boundaries” necessary to promote self-learning. “I realized the first thing I had to do was clearly distinguish my tasks from theirs.  In other words, I had a place, they had theirs; and attention had to be paid not to trespass on each other’s ground.”

In doing so, she realized that: “if I helped them with an answer, I was in fact taking their place; and taking someone’s place is also a lack of respect for, and trust in, the intelligence and capacity of that person to untangle a problem.”

 With this guiding philosophy something akin to the “shock and awe” of military doctrine is brought to the classroom, except the enemy here is a student’s own deeply rooted prejudices about what they can and cannot learn.

“How many times have I heard a student say: ‘I can’t learn a foreign language, I’m hopeless?’ queries Bartoli. “ The challenge in this case is to surprise your students by working in ways they are not used to.”

Therefore, by not answering questions, you bring to the classroom something new and unfamiliar that challenges a student to begin to discover and rely upon their inherent faculties to learn, the greatest of these being the development of intuition, which is the undisputed champion of every great new idea in history.

Precise techniques or actions for beginning this process can include, for instance, calling on other students to answer questions instead of doing it yourself, when it is appropriate; or encouraging multiple responses to a single question.  When correct answers are put forth, you can have the student or students describe how they arrived at the correct response and vise-versa for how they reached an incorrect conclusion.

Ultimately, this process begins to build the inner criterion in every student that can lead him or her to becoming highly effective and confident learners who are capable of creating and expanding their knowledge at will. 

Sima Gandhi