teaching students to think

Why I don’t let my students ask, “can you help me?”

As a teacher, I have just one strict rule. By the end of the first half term, all students know it well. Wear the correct uniform at all times? No. Never be late to my lesson? No. Instead, it is, do not ask the question "can you help me?". Does this sound harsh? Let me explain.

Firstly, there is only ever one answer to the question, "can you help me?", it is "YES! of course, I can, that's why I'm here because I can help you". What I have found is that the question "can you help me?", discourages students from thinking for themselves, and immediately shifts the responsibility of their own learning on to the teacher.

keep calm I am a maths teacher

Shifting responsibility to the teacher might work in some contexts, but not in maths. I firmly believe that part of the learning experience in mathematics requires that most of the responsibility for learning is with the learner. If your tennis coach suggests that in order to gain more power in your service, you need to toss the ball higher, by her telling you this it may lead to a change. You may learn something. There is an element of the agreement, that agreement comes from the trust you have in her. The coach must be right. But with maths, if you tell a student how to do something, then learning does not actually take place. The question, "can you help me?", pretty much means "can you tell me what to do?", or "can you tell me how to do it?".

What I do instead is have sentence starters which help students know how to ask good questions. These sentence starters are stuck on the classroom wall. Here are some of them:

  • How do I know when to...
  • Is it always true that...
  • Why do we...
  • How do we...
  • Does this involve...

By students starting questions with these sentence starters, it immediately encourages them to think about what they already know, and it helps them to realise what they need to know in order to understand further.

"Can you help me?", rather like "I don't get it", are actually self-limiting don't you think? The learner is in a better position if they have an attitude which is, "I can help myself, let me figure out what I need to know", or, "I don't quite understand this, but I do understand that...". If students suggest that they "don't get anything", I tend to ask them something that they absolutely do know. For example, you're teaching how to find perimeters of quadrilaterals. A student says "I don't get it, can you help me?". The teacher could ask, "what don't you get?". The student (typically) responds, "all of it". The teacher could ask a series of questions they expect the student to know the answer to, such as, "do you know what a quadrilateral is?", "what do we mean by perimeter?", "how many sides do the shapes have?" and so on. This gets the learner into a mindset where they realise that they do in truth know quite a lot already.

Sometimes, by changing the use of language, we turn a disempowering statement into an empowering one. Consider, "this is too hard" compared to, "this is a challenge", "I don't get this" compared to, "this has made me think", or "can you help me?" compared to, "how can I solve this?".

Feel free to join me in my "can you help me?" ban. I've found that students end up really enjoying searching for new and creative ways to ask questions. In the end, for sure, their thinking skills are much more developed by the end of the year.

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