Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Connecting the Dots

Today you will have the opportunity to teach someone something.

You might see it and act upon it. You might not.

You might be unaware of it and yet still act upon it.

You might be overwhelmingly aware of it and not.

Nonetheless, the opportunity will present itself today.

When it does, you might consider the metaphor of connecting dots. We often think about teaching as helping someone to connect the dots.  However, I've recently come to the conclusion that the best teachers don't help students connect dots. Instead, they simply make sure that the students can see all the dots. They leave it to the students to do the connecting.

The reason I've concluded this is twofold. First, there is mounting evidence supporting the notion that the source of learning challenges is rarely the topic at hand.  Instead, it's a missed building block in the structure on which the topic rests.  For example, people don't struggle with trigonometry because they don't understand the notions of sin and cos.  They struggle with trigonometry because they're missing critical building blocks from algebra or geometry. The building block in algebra or geometry are missing because they depend on building blocks from arithmetic.

Teacher and student can work day after day trying to learn trig. The student can learn to repeat steps outlined by the teacher. The student may pass or even do well on exams.  However, the student never actually understands what she's doing. She's simply following the pattern the teacher used to connect the dots.  Many of the dots have know meaning for her.

To continue switching metaphors, it's like working a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Even when you get all the pieces together their are still gaps that may preclude you from actually seeing the picture. You can piece the thing together over and over and still not get it.

So, what's a teacher to do?  Focus on ensuring all the pieces are in the box, all the dots are visible on the page, all the foundational building blocks are in place. If so, the student can do the connecting.

Second (I mentioned that my reason was twofold).  It's through the process of putting the pieces together that we come to understand how to put pieces together. In particular, it's through failing to put them together and then stepping back to figure out why we failed and what we can do differently that we learn the most.

To simply follow directions or copy an example doesn't work. (OK, that's not entirely true; repeated imitation while seeking to gain insight can be quite effective. However, if you copy or imitate only long enough to get a checkmark or a star, it doesn't work.)

Today you will have the opportunity to teach someone something.

How will you go about it?

Happy Tuesday,


  1. Thank you! I've been impatient lately, saying "we connected those dots yesterday! This is the connection!" Like that works...

  2. Funny how no one ever seems to remember the dots that were connected for them.


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