Teachers often struggle against becoming the “Sage on the Stage”. This post will look at one of the areas where the sage takes center stage frequently in teaching, the giving of instructions for activities.
One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn to do is not to over instruct. Over instruction is when the teacher explains every single detail of an activity to the point where to complete it the student would only need to follow the path that the teacher has laid out. This in effect robs the students of any cognitive challenge that they may have encountered and makes the activity for all intensive purposes a solved game. On the flip side if the teacher gives no instruction at all frustration and disengagement are the likely result. The balancing act between these two poles can be frustrating for teachers.
In game design you can have a similar situation, too much information can lead to boredom, too little and the player can’t effectively engage with the system. To combat this designers introduced the concept of first order rules for games. These are simply the rules that you need to know to be able to play the game. In chess for example they would consist of how the pieces move and interact, the taking of turns and how to secure checkmate. From these basic rules you can start playing the game immediately and more importantly the higher order rules emerge naturally as the player experiments with the game. No high ranking chess player has ever successfully become so by having all the ways of playing the game explained to them in lecture format while never touching a board.
In the classroom setting instructions should also be made up of first order rules. Instruction should be simplified so that students can engage with the activity as quickly as possible. In this way the student get to experiment and begin to learn naturally from attempting to use the rules to solve the problem that has been outlined.
There is a fear among teachers however if they do not explain things in full that the students will get stuck and be unable to progress. While this can and does happen in the classroom it is important to balance the gains made by allowing students to discover for themselves against the need for some students to be given extra support.
When the support is necessary the teacher should help the student as discreetly and unobtrusively as possible. The classic way to do this is to ask questions of the student in a Socratic style to help them to engage with the activity and to nudge them gently in the right direction.
if you would like some more concrete examples of questions to ask students to help them to move forward with activities look at G. Polya “How to solve it”.
It is important to remember that as teachers we have studied long and hard to become experts in our field. This can lead to the habit of wanting to show our deep understanding for the subject at hand and our expertise. We have to be careful to give just the information that the students need at the time that they need it and that this information should be usable by the student to do something.