I recently had the opportunity to accompany a bunch of fourth graders on a school fishing trip. My semi-official role was photographer. But whenever I’m around the kids I’m also their coach and champion. So as I wandered about the shoreline looking for “photo ops” I also asked questions and offered encouragement and advice. I had some fun with the kids by asking them, “How many ya got?” When they replied “none.” I would try teaching them the fisherman’s answer. “As soon as I get the one I’m after and one more I’ll have two.” There is something of a never-ending optimism among fishermen. You can’t say you haven’t caught any until you’ve quit fishing.
One young fellow surprised me a bit when I asked about his catching. He replied, “I don’t think these fish like me.” I’m still not sure if he was sincere about his answer, but it was quite interesting to see how the kids reacted to catching and not catching. And there was another teachable concept in pointing out the fundamental difference between “going fishing” and “going catching.” Sometimes the process can be the result.
While a certain amount of skill is involved, ultimately the catching is up to the fish. (I used to have a little sign that read, “Even a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if he kept his mouth shut.”) The fisherperson’s role is to engage and excite the fish into taking the bait.
One of the teaching processes we often use is called “Q & A Teaching.” The process is based on the sound principle of engaging learners because you teach by using directional questioning designed to get the students to take the bait. If it’s not done well, it can be a lot like fishing without much catching.
An example might be stating a word problem involving math, then asking the class “What information do I need to solve this problem?” (There’s the cast.) One student calls out an answer that’s totally wrong. (Your line is now in a tree and the fish can’t reach it.) If you’re lucky, the next student gives the right answer. But what do you say to the first student? Personally, I don’t think wrong answers are “bad,” but some would say that calling attention to wrong answers creates a negative learning environment. We’re supposed to ignore them and move forward–unless we can somehow build on them. As most fisherpeople know, if you blow the first cast to a waiting fish, the odds are good you’ll just scare it into hiding.
Kids aren’t much different. Even if it’s unintentional, when we set them up to fail they’ll often go into hiding and stop trying.
But there’s another factor at work here and any teacher who’s made this mistake is painfully aware of its reality. You only only get one chance to teach it right because most students will remember what they hear first–even if you immediately correct your mistake. In my real estate classes there are two terms for holding title to property that are really quite simple, but they are also very easy to mix up. The terms are “fee simple determinable” and “fee simple condition subsequent.” When I first started teaching them, I would occasionally accidentally reverse them. When that happened, the number of students who got the subsequent quiz question wrong dramatically increased no matter how hard I retaught the concept. It’s become a concept that I now teach very carefully and deliberately. I still rehearse that lesson in my mind before I teach it.
I do not ask any questions until I’ve been over both terms at least once. I will emphasize the importance of getting it right by subtly suggesting “This might be on the test.” This emphasis is called “raising the stakes” and it’s another way of engaging learners. but I definitely don’t invite the students to give me wrong information until they’ve heard it correctly at least once.
Teaching kids is an awesome responsibility and while I’m not inviting paranoia over the ways and means by which we do it, I am suggesting deliberation and a disciplined approach. Sometimes knowing the right question and when to ask it is more important than knowing the right answer!
(Note: While I do not usually use photos I’ve taken of the kids at school to illustrate my writing, I have Hannah’s parents permission for this one which also appeared as the cover photo on a recent edition of the Eastern Gazette.)