Spoon-Feeding and Hunting: A Balancing Act in the Classroom

spoon-feedingGrowing up in the 1970's, I remember receiving only one kind of answer to most of my factual, straight-forward questions like "How do you spell 'definitely'?" or "What's the capital of North Dakota?" Maybe you remember it, too.  "Look it up!"

I learned a valuable lesson with this kind of response; when it came to factual information, I was on my own. But if I had more ambiguous, complex questions on my mind ("Why do countries go to war?" or "How come women don't make as much as men for the same work?"), all I had to do was sit back and listen. An adult was bound to tell me the answer.

To me, inquiry-based instruction is about doing the exact opposite of this. Inquiry is about giving away the easy answers so students can spend more time exploring the challenging questions.

I remember starting out as a teacher defaulting to these old practices. I would spend most of my weekends reading and assembling articles, preparing activities and developing essential questions for students to explore. It felt like the right thing to do, until I started realizing that I was doing all the important work for my students. My students were the ones missing out on determining the questions to ask, the resources to analyze and the activities needed to test claims and hypotheses. There was the content students needed to know and there were the skills and dispositions they needed to develop. I wasn't balancing the two.

Balance is the operative word here. Spoon-feeding and trough-filling is fine if done for expediency (facts and figures) and in service to exploring deeper issues.

Spoon-Feeding. When we continually offer easy-to-digest (or, let's be honest, already digested) information into the mouths of students...via lectures and ppt. presentations, we are "spoon-feeding" information and (usually) our own conclusions to students. All they need to do is listen, take notes and regurgitate. This proffered sustenance will do just that: sustain. It will rarely excite or inspire the intellectual palate if done in excess. Necessary, but insufficient.

Trough Filling. Assigning a bunch of readings and worksheets onto students is a step up from spoon-feeding. While we are generally curating information for students, we are not necessarily interpreting for them. They may be annotating or discussing what they've read individually or in small groups. Necessary in small amounts, but also sleep-inducing if done too much.

Stocking the Pond. I did a lot of this while teaching. I created "hands-on" activities where I essentially set up the hypothesis (or claim), the materials and procedures needed to test it. Students worked usually in small groups to complete the steps and write up conclusions/reflections. There was one way of testing and only a small number of plausible or correct answers at the end. Students had "fun" but weren't required to think very hard. They remembered these activities years later (good) but couldn't explain the big ideas behind them very well (not so good). Was it necessary to engage in some of this? Perhaps. It certainly modeled how to go about finding answers to questions, though I'm not sure it was the best use of anyone's time in the end.

Hunting. I didn't do this nearly enough. I feared chaos and mutiny. I feared loss of control. I worried that students wouldn't know enough to perform on tests. But without letting go, I wasn't giving students the opportunity to build essentials skills and dispositions like thinking critically, communicating ideas and problem solving. Letting go requires plans. It's not dumping off students at a deserted island and waving "Good luck!" while speeding off. It's preparing them with some of the above and then asking them to 1) Develop their own questions and theories, 2) Design their own experiments/activities, 3) Test them using what they believe are the best tools. Hunting requires people to look around and determine what's needed in order to eat. It might be a fishing rod or a net or a fire. It might take some time.

How do we give students more opportunities to 'hunt' for themselves so they can appreciate their own efforts and the taste that comes with it? How do we balance the knowledge students need to hunt well with the opportunity to try it out?