The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.
But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.
“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

If you’re an American teacher trying to maximize the student learning taking place in your classroom, think about the implications here.  For the sake of example, say you have a class size of 22 students.  You’ve given them a task.  “Ready, set, go,” you say to the class.

A hand immediately shoots up.  “I need help,” implores Susie.

As you’re walking over, you see another hand appear. “Uh, what are we supposed to do here?” little Jimmy inquires.

“Jimmy, hold on, I’ll be right…” Before you can finish your sentence, you see several other students, almost in unison, push their papers to the side, groan, and utter those dreaded words: “I DON’T GET IT.”

Like Frosty the Snowman in the heat of summer, the class as a whole is melting in their ability to even get started on the task, let alone work towards completing it.  What do you do?

“Okay, class, let’s talk about this.”  You decide to gather their attention  “Let me just go over this again one more time.”  You rephrase the directions, and even more, you decide to get them started.  Before you know it, the directions have been spoon-fed and the first step has been given.

Now, by this point, 15-20 minutes have passed, but at least you have the class working, right?  Well, at least most of them.

Here’s the kicker.  This isn’t an impossible task like the one in the research study referenced in this article.  In fact, the task is a very doable one.  Furthermore, you reviewed the task thoroughly with the students before even passing it out, having the students chorally repeat back key components of the task.  Teacher clarity is not the problem here.

Unfortunately, the described scene is probably a common one in our American classrooms.  I know I’ve experienced it.

Now, if something like this is happening during one instructional period, imagine how much time is lost in one day. One week.  One month.  One instructional year!

Time lost immersing students in deep practice.  Time lost providing meaningful feedback.  Time lost doing what we know advances learning.

Last week I wrote a response to “The Problem With Having a Growth Mindset.” To summarize, I conjectured that there’s no problem with the growth mindset.  It should just be implemented wisely.

But here I’m presenting the case that maybe we’re the problem.  

Could it be that we’re conditioning our students to be helpless?  

From the aforementioned article about the growth mindset:

In Students Can Learn From Their Mistakes if We Let Them, I wrote that Hattie suggests that “40% to 50% of the time that our students make errors, we correct them. They’re never given the opportunity to struggle because we give them the answer before it gets too hard.”

Dweck goes on to write, “It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning. The growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning. When they’re stuck, teachers can appreciate their work so far, but add: ‘Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.'”

So, what happens to our students that they become so helpless?

Again, maybe it’s us?

A little story:

Twas’ the weekend before Christmas when my parents came up to visit.  They were traveling down to Georgia for Christmas to see my brother’s family, so they wanted to give my two-year-old daughter, Emily, her Christmas gifts.

My daughter Emily.  We love her to pieces.  It wasn’t easy getting her into this world.  I try to take every possible moment to suck in the miracle of life that she is.

In this time, I’ve noticed just how determined she is to figure things out for herself.  To do things by herself. “Daddy, no, Emi,” she’ll say, meaning she doesn’t want my help.

Daddy, move back,” she’ll also say.

I love this determination of hers.  Of course, there are many times I’m trying to help for safety reasons, but yes, there are many that I’m able to just “move back.”  And usually, she figures it out.

So what explains the stark contrast between this inclination I see in my toddler (and I’m assuming most toddlers) and the inclination I observe in my pre-adolescent students?

Perhaps something similar to the following explains it:

As I began to assemble the pink tricycle my parents got Emily, my dad (a retired teacher of  35 years) figured he’d help.  I recall a specific time during this assembly that I was trying to align a bolt passing through one piece of the tricycle into another piece.  It was literally about 5 seconds before my father said, “Let me try,” and moved his hand towards the bolt as if to take it from me.  I had to say to him, “Dad, I’ve got it.”  Not much different than what Emily says to me:

“Daddy, move back.”

Move back.

I think if we really examine our practices as teachers (and parents),  we’d be able to find many times we can/should just “move back.”

And in moving back, I think we’ll find ourselves helping our students move forward.