Saturday, February 5, 2011

When "Helping" Hurts

Can helping kids too much actually hurt them? This idea has been rolling around in my head for a few years now. I'm speaking of science and social studies instruction/assessment in elementary school in particular. Here's the situation that prompted this particular post:

Alabama History, Chapter 6 (Reconstruction) is taught by my wonderful student teacher, who covers everything that is on the test quite well. Lessons are interactive, engaging, and meaningful. Students are given a study guide that is already completed. There are 21 items, but as I CUT THE TEST IN HALF, I circled the items that would be tested. Students played a review game the day before the test. Right before the test they had about five minutes to review the study guide. Although the study guide and test were not worded identically, they were pretty close. The test had 11 questions and was OPEN BOOK. The students had 40 minutes to take the test. (Even as I write this I'm thinking, "You did all of that?!"). And of course, the test was read aloud to those students who have that specified as part of their educational plan. The results? A class average of less than 70%.

When I spoke to the children about it and asked them why they struggled on the test, they responded that they just need to study more and pay more attention. It was when I was telling them "I can't think of anything else I can do to make this easier for you..." that I realized maybe that is the problem. Maybe they think they don't have to work hard because it is too easy. Maybe they're not challenged enough so there's no real need to work. Maybe they've been given so many "helps" that they've come to rely (and dare I say, expect?) them.

Of course you must understand that I didn't start out giving students all of these "helps." It has evolved over the years for various reasons. The biggest reason currently is that students have so much less exposure to the content areas before 4th grade than they used to have. They are not nearly as prepared for science and social studies as they were in past years. This is not the fault of their lower grades teachers. The push to teach reading and math for the majority of the day has simply shoved other subjects onto the back burner. I'm even struggling with teaching both subjects in a day myself!

Which brings me back to my issue---am I helping my students so much that in fact I am hurting them? I believe so, but I'm afraid to remove some of the scaffolds I've set up for them. After all, I put them there for a reason! Is anyone else noticing this in their classrooms? What have you done to "fix" the problem?


  1. Is it that you are helping them too much or is it that they haven't taken enough ownership in the learning? Your post has me thinking very hard about an upcoming social studies unit. I have engaging lessons planned, but is that enough?
    Did you see this post?

  2. Great link! That is a big concern for me about students not taking ownership of the learning. I think maybe all of "help" has them thinking they don't necessarily need to take ownership. I definitely want to move towards a project-based or problem-based curriculum by the end of this year, or at least the beginning of next year. Our Alabama History curriculum is just too hard. (It is actually a 9th grade text book!)Plus, I feel like the experiential learning would help with the ownership issue.



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