It’s time to Let Go…

There are four simple words that are like nails on a chalkboard to me: I, DON’T, GET, IT

Nothing gets my dander up quicker than a student who says these four words before even mulling a problem over.  I can recall 8th grade students uttering these four words before the POW(problem of the week) that I gave them even hit their desk. For many years I have been having the following thoughts:

  • Why does this happen?
  • How do I stop it?

Over the last 4 years as a math coach working along side teachers as we prepared lessons,  as I modeled effective teaching strategies, and as I observed student teacher interaction I began to notice a trend that I know I have been guilty of in the past.


Why do teachers feel the need to jump in as soon as a students how even the slightest bit of struggle?  Because that’s what we are programmed to do!  This innate ability is what drew us to be teachers in the first place, to help and educate, and to show students the how and the why in our world.  But at some point it became an ingrained response, almost like a Pavlovian conditioning.  I first noticed this, while watching another teacher give her class a PBL (problem based learning).  As soon as she opened up the flip-chart with the problem, several students raised their hands and exclaimed, “I don’t get it!”.

I shook my head because I couldn’t believe how quickly they were to throw in the towel.  Instead of jumping up to help I became curious as to how the teacher would handle the situation.   As I watched, she gathered up those students, moved to a small table, and proceeded to walk them through the problem step by step.  Nothing wrong with that right?  Heck, I have done the same thing on many occasions!  During her direct instruction I realized that a couple of the students weren’t actively engaged, another two were copying everything the teacher did without asking any questions, and the other two didn’t have their pencils.  Here is where I began to realize that she was doing everything for them and most likely, 5 out of those 6 students wouldn’t learn a thing except that if they complained, the teacher would be the solution.

As I walked back down to my office I started to reflect on my own teaching.  How many times did I react the same way?  How many times in the past did I jump right in to “fix” the problem?  How many other teachers would react the same way?

Over the past few years I have been able to gather data and I found out that this reaction is the norm.  While at the same time, the teacher’s biggest complaint is that their students aren’t “problem solvers”  From the data I saw that teachers aren’t letting the students struggle with mathematical situations.  That teachers find it extremely difficult to let the students try a strategy and fail only to try something different.   I watched several teachers “take over” a student’s thinking!  One teacher went so far as to build a model for the student because she felt, “this will take you too long”!  Teachers aren’t letting students think for themselves and reason abstractly about situations, and by doing so much “hand holding” we are leading students to believe that as long as they say “I don’t get it”, we will do it for them.


The best part of my job is that I get to model for the teachers.  So, as these last 3 years have gone by I have teachers bring their classes to the math lab and I throw POW’s or PBL’s or real life situations at the students. (3 act tasks are great for allowing students to think on their own!)  I then let the students drive the instruction.  If I hear an “I don’t get it”, my response is simple yet effective:

“I would rather you try and fail, then learn from your mistake rather than me do it for you”

Several teachers still laugh about the times I have followed them around the room only to grab their arm and say, “Let them think”.  I know it has been effective because in my classroom observations the number of “I don’t get its” has dwindled.  The other day I was working with my small group of 4th grade EIP students and I gave them a challenging task, which I knew would stump some of them.  Out of 9 students I heard only one “I don’t get it” from a young man who was quickly reminded by his classmate, “Mr. D just wants us to try something, remember?”.  As I sat and listened to a few of the talk to themselves about the problem I overhead one young lady say the following, “Ok, I think I have an idea, but I am going to read it one more time and hope for my “aha” moment”.  My heart just melted…

Am I saying that teachers should just sit back and not engage with the students while they struggle?

Of course not!  But I am asking that they use their best judgement.  If students need direct instruction on how to pick apart a problem, then by all means…but most times teachers need to just “LET IT GO”

I challenge you to try and please let me know what you see…

Let’s change the way we do things…

What are your thoughts?


Reply with your thoughts here: