When I work with teachers, I often tell them that my goal is to be the “least helpful teacher possible.”  I believe I first had this goal after watching Dan Meyer’s TED Talk.  While the idea of being the “least helpful” usually elicits a few laughs, I never mean it to be funny. To better explain my goal, I use the metaphor of a bench presser and a spotter.

I tell teachers that students are the bench pressers and we are their spotters. A spotter’s job is to give the bench presser the least amount of help necessary so that he or she can lift the weight. If the spotter gives too much help and does most of the lifting, then the spotter gets stronger, not the bench presser. If the spotter gives too little help, the weights fall on the bench presser and the bench presser dies.

So, the spotter’s job is to give the bench presser the least amount of help so that the bench presser can lift the weight. No more help and no less help.

Taking this back to the classroom context, this is no easy task. Teachers often have 30+ students who are all lifting different amounts of weights and are at different levels of exertion. Spotting them all simultaneously takes lots of preparation. Personally, I love to use a combination of a pre-mortem and the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions.

What do you think of this analogy? What are some of your favorite “spotter” techniques? Please let me know if the comments.

1. Not sure where I heard it but I love the quote “The person that does the work does the learning”. I think you’re getting at that idea in this post. I like the spotter analogy. I often find the athletic coaching vs. teaching analogies fruitful.

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

Ooooh. That’s a great quote Raj! I don’t recall reading it before. Thanks for that… and yes I do see them connected.

2. Gabriel Ward says:

Well put, coaching (sports) and teaching are very much connected. Spotting students is an extremely difficult challenge although differentiated learning is what allows for the “zpd” of students to be tapped.

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

3. Michael here, from the Land of the Overly Literal. Slogans like “be less helpful” always take me a minute. I need to translate them, put them back in the sort of overly literal terms I’m apt to understand.

Literally: being helpful is good. We should not be not helpful. That would be unhelpful. Which, frankly, wouldn’t help anyone.

But I take it the gist of the slogan is that the teacher’s instinct is to create situations where kids don’t have the opportunity to think. If we remind ourselves to step back, shut up, let thinking happen, we’ll more appropriately hit the sweet spot where kids are thinking and not flailing (“as possible”).

Here’s the problem, though: sometimes when you’re less helpful, kids don’t learn anything. Other times, they do. When is when?

Here is where your analogy with weight-training breaks down, I think. (‘I think,’ because umm I don’t exactly lift bro.) To the extent that the spotter is just a spotter, it’s because the lifter knows what they’re doing. They are lifting the right amount of weight to be getting stronger, and they’re doing the correct lifts. And then that’s just it: they lift. That’s all there is to it. The lifter knows how to improve; the spotter is just making sure no one dies.

The thing about learning math is that you often don’t know how to get better. For example, take me. I’ve been knocking my head against the wall, trying to learn some group theory for the past few months. It has not been going especially well. Part of the problem is that when I try a new problem, I’m just using the same tools that I have. I’m not discovering new tools especially quickly. I could really use some teacher to show me some of the mathematical structure that I’m currently missing.

Of course, the math education world has language for this. We talk about productive and unproductive struggle. Though, come to think of it, we tend to mostly think of ‘unproductive struggle’ as the thing where you’re getting frustrated and making no progress. A struggle can be equally unproductive, it seems to me, if it’s not leading you anywhere new. Every once in a while I get a 3rd Grader who insists on counting by 1s for 23 + 34. It’s actually sort of hard to keep track of all those numbers when you’re counting by 1s. That’s unproductive struggle.

Anyway, you might be getting the idea that I’m not huge on slogans. If we’re going to do slogans, though, I feel that ‘be less helpful’ misses the mark precisely because learning math is not like getting stronger. Pretty much everybody knows how to get stronger; pretty much nobody knows how to get better at math, all on their own.

Perhaps we could go for something like ‘Let good thinking happen’ or ‘Don’t interrupt a new thought’ or…I don’t know. Nobody has ever accused me of being pithy.

Thanks for the interesting post. Interested to know more of your thoughts on this.

4. Robert Kaplinsky says:

Hey Michael. First, thanks for the laugh at “because umm I don’t exactly lift bro.” I do see your point, which I believe is that this metaphor treats the complexities of math like it’s complicated and only focuses on adjustments to the magnitude of the problem but not the direction (a la velocity).

In general, my main hope for this analogy is that it counters the belief that helping people grow means doing more and more for them. I’m specifically not saying that I want to be the most unhelpful. I want to give people JUST enough help and no more. I don’t focus on the part that the lifter knows what to do and do see your point there. Perhaps there is a better metaphor out there, but it has been my experience in using it with educators that it makes my point quite well.

Thoughts?

• I’m honestly not sure what I think. My gut reaction is that I still find “be less helpful” unhelpful. (So, success?)

Part of the problem is that I have no idea what it means to “do more” versus “do less.” Like, does it count as doing more or doing less when I ask a student to share her strategy for a problem? Is it doing more or doing less to ask a kid how it’s going and listen to their approach? Doing less — compared to what?

I get it, though. We’re worried about not leaving room for thinking. By helping too much with a kid’s thinking when they’re on a productive path. This is a very, very particular sense in which I agree, some of us could stand to be less helpful. Given the option of interrupting productive thinking and not, we should not.

Incidentally, I don’t find “goldilocks” principles so helpful. It’s true: we should give just enough help, and no more, but then again we should also give just enough ANYTHING, and no more. We should lecture just enough; we should listen just enough; we should punish children just enough; we should ask kids to work in groups, just enough. (Relatedly: we should ask kids to struggle, just as long as it’s productive. This has always struck me as a tautology.)

All this said, I entirely believe you that the educators you work with find this entirely helpful. Like I said, I’m from the land of the overly literal and counter-intuitive advice (e.g. be selfish; work less; be lazy) tends to turn me off. If it’s resonating with a lot of educators, you’re probably on the right track. (Listening to Michael Bad Professional Move.)

Thanks for the great conversation!

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

In regards to “part of the problem is that I have no idea what it means to “do more” versus “do less.”, maybe I could define it as doing less of the children’s thinking for them.

I do appreciate your push back. It does make me reflect and try to be more precise in my communication. Thanks Michael.

5. Lindy Sims says:

I’ve heard you say this, and I totally agree! Do you have any advice for communicating this to paraeducators and interventionists?

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

Might this same analogy work for them? So far, I haven’t found anyone who couldn’t relate to the message behind this analogy.

6. John says:

I like the analogy because teachers often view their job as serving the little faces staring back at them and not helping other teachers grow. My analogy is that a school is like a restaurant. Each person is an individual, but o one sous chef is more or less important than the others. It is the overall eating experience that parents and students will register. Most importantly, you can’t become a great restaurant simply by investing in equipment (Edtech) or training (PD).

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

Thanks John. I like your analogy: its sum of the parts that matters. Thanks for sharing.

7. Joyce Johnson says:

Here are some ways I avoid being too helpful:
When they ask for help, I say, “I’ll be there in a minute.” If I wait awhile, they’ve often figured it out before I get there.
If it’s a student who really lacks self-confidence, I say, “Try anything. A mistake is better than nothing.” Then when I get there, I can usually find some piece of it that is on track, and we can build from that.
My favorite is write a sentence telling me what is confusing you. Not too many kids want to go to the work of doing that, so they just work on the problem.

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

Love these Joyce! Super helpful contribution. Thanks!