Is there such a thing as over teaching?


Some refer to it as spoon-feeding; I refer to it as over teaching. But is it ever possible to over teach? Surely teaching is a good thing, right? However just like Lennie in the John Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men” the intention was always good. Unfortunately, Lennie was unaware of his own strength and although he really loved animals, he always petted them too hard and killed them like he did with the mouse at the beginning of the story. I refer to the inexperienced teacher as Lennie and the mouse as independence, creativity and deep thinking of students. The intentions are always good however the consequences are the same, inadvertent smothering. What if we looked at the other side of the spectrum where phrases like “hands off teaching” or “helicopter teaching” are more commonplace?

My first encounter with the idea of over teaching happened about seven years ago whilst still teaching back in Wales. Our forward-thinking head teacher was very keen on learning walks to observe other lessons. He would often take a group of teachers around with him to take part in lesson observations (personally I prefer the Looking for Learning approach). This was a great opportunity to experience other teaching styles and to share good practice. One lesson that we observed was outstanding. The children were all involved in hands-on experiments and chatting about their ideas. There was a buzz of excitement in the air and even better they were learning. They were using subject-specific vocabulary and asking each other questions and looking up things they did not know. There was even one or two magical, light bulb “Ah I get it!” type moments.

The next lesson we observed was very different. A teacher sat on a chair with a semi-circle of respectful, patient children trying their best to remain attentive whilst their teacher talked at them. Bombarded with instructions, the children were seriously bored and eager to get on with the task that was waiting for them on their desks. It was clear that the children were no longer taking in the avalanche of instructions and irrelevant information. This went on for about 15-20 minutes before one child put the teacher out of her misery. A hand shot up and for the first time in the lesson, one of the children was allowed to speak. “Can we just get on with it?” was the request from the understandably impatient student.  The headteacher laughed. I´m sure it was in part an awkward laugh given the tense situation and in part at the child´s eye-rolling, fed up tone. It is fair to say that the visitors who were observing all felt the same.

It goes without saying that the time spent on the initial input will need to vary depending on age etc. There are many factors that govern this such as whether it is new learning or consolidation and so on. Surely it is far more beneficial to craft circumstances that facilitate learning to allow children to discover for themselves. A well-known quote often attributed to Confucius says, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”. Sometimes there is a perceived need to control every part of the learning process and for every lesson to be a perfect success, but successful for whom? The second teacher was so focussed on saying all the things that she thought she should say rather than considering the ultimate question. Are my students learning? This is the problem when focussing on teaching rather than learning. Much like a circus clown a teacher may well be entertaining to watch but could still be ineffective when it comes to students learning. Visible thinking tools and cooperative learning structures or even big questions would all be useful tools when discovering if there is any learning going on. Questions that make the children think are far better than a question where the entire class has their hand up. I always think that if the children all know the answer then they are involved in something that they already know.

Should we go as far as to allow children to struggle from time to time? Should we override the urge to launch the life raft at the very first sign of struggle? Clearly, we will not allow our students to drown in a sink or swim situation but it is ok to step back and let them have a go after short instruction. Let them take a leap into the deep without knowing absolutely everything they need to know and discover through their own struggle and sharing their experience with others. We can save them at any time but to try to teach them to swim without experiencing the water is perhaps the greatest disservice of all. To spoon-feed is to cheat children out of the experience developing their own thinking and independence.



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