Friday, April 3, 2009

Are You Too Helpful?

A few years ago, I taught an enrichment class, called "Creative Math." There were about 15 boys in the class. Some of them loved math, and some were in the class because their parents made them take it.

This class did not include much arithmetic. It focused on math found in more creative endeavors, like design, music, and art. One activity involved making tangrams... those geometric shapes that can be placed in various patterns to create swans, ships, houses, teapots, dogs, etc. I gave each student a square of heavy construction paper, and then told them step by step, how to fold and cut that sheet of paper into the 7 tangram shapes. They listened carefully, and did a beautiful job of folding and cutting.

When they each had the 7 shapes on the table in front of them, I explained that their new task was to put the shapes back together so that it would look like it did before we began folding and cutting. In other words, put it back into the original square shape. Easy! "Wait... how did we do that?" Hmmm. "Did I lose a piece?" "Is this a trick?" Minutes ticked by, and some of the boys began working in teams. Others, with wrinkled brows, fervently moved this piece and that piece, trying to remember all the steps involved in creating the tangrams. The room hummed with creative thinking.

In the meantime, a dad, who had been watching the whole process, leaned over the shoulders of a team of three boys who were eagerly trying one approach after another. Reaching past them and sliding pieces around he said, "Try putting this piece here, and that piece over there." I suddenly heard a sad, "Oh...." The three boys said, "We got it." But there was no enthusiasm in their voices. I told them that was great work, and they answered dejectedly, "but we had help." I will never forgot the sad looks on the faces of those three boys, now sitting slumped back in their chairs.

Other boys in the room now looked at the solved puzzle and moved their pieces into the same configuration. What had been an excited and involved class, suddenly became a very sullen group. The dad explained, "I just saw them all struggling, and I thought if I could just give them a little hint, it would make it easier."

I think there are many times in our lives when it is really important for us to find our own solutions to problems. We need to dig for information, on our own. We need to brainstorm, on our own. We need to make mistakes, on our own. When we work hard to find a solution, and we succeed, the elation we feel for that hard-won success will carry us through many more situations in our lives. Because we solved that problem, we know we are capable of solving other problems in the future. It helps us gain confidence. What we learned from solving that one problem, can be applied to future problems. We become better creative and logical thinkers. Our abilities expand exponentially.

It does seem to be in our nature to try to help someone who is struggling. We want them to see the answer so that they can move on, but when they haven't invested themselves in discovering that answer, it becomes far less meaningful to them. They haven't seen the pieces fitting together one by one. They haven't experienced that "aha moment" when the way becomes clear. Instead of an excited "YES!" they may instead simply say, "oh."

There will be many times in your life, when your help will be welcomed and appreciated, and there will be many times, when you will be so happy NOT to have helped. As your child shares with you, the excitement of discovery, you will both shout, "YES!"

By the way, if you ever need help... just ask.

"In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time." ~Anthony J. D'Angelo


Rick Hamrick said...

Ruth--I heartily agree that there is great value in the discovery process which can be quickly lost unless there *is* a discovery process!

That's not to say some help is not the right plan, but not until the excitement and energy has faded from lack of results. In fact, just a hint of help can refire the excitement, instead of being the big wet blanket it was in your exmmple.

This is a great one to think about. We spend too much time focusing on results instead of the fun to be had on the way there.

Ruth said...

Rick, you are absolutely correct. There are times, when help is exactly what is needed, to assist the discovery process. And, it is not always easy to tell when the time is right.

My daughters often tell me that I explain too much, so I am learning to offer smaller bits of information/help to still allow the discovery process to take place.

Thank you for your insightful comment!

Phil Gerbyshak said...

Wow Ruth, this is so true! I've seen this happen with the folks on my team too. Sometimes they'll be working something out together and I'll jump in and give them the answer. Sure, that helps for this time, but they don't learn for next time.

I'm trying to slow down and let it come to them, and let them come to me.

I'll help if you ask me...and sometimes even if you don't :)

Ruth said...

Phil, I agree that it can be so difficult to wait while others work through something that you could solve in a second. At that moment, it seems like such a great idea to jump in and show them the easy way or the way that you know will work.

My work associates have generally been polite when I have stepped in "to help." My daughters just roll their eyes, and say, with a sneer, "Thanks! I just about had it."

I learn a lot from those girls...

Karen Swim, Words For Hire said...

Ruth, what a great post and one that we should all take to heart. I believe that it is intuitive for most of us to offer help - the human heart does not like to see struggle or pain - but it is a difficult choice to know when help is harmful. Another interesting observation, I don't have children but have seen the homework given to my nieces/nephews and friends children which all ends up being homework for the parents too. I wonder what test scores would look like if parents did not "help" so much. :-)

Ruth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruth said...

Karen - Thanks for taking the time to comment on the post! I, too, wonder how test scores would be affected if parents did not "help" as much!

Great minds of the past, like Einstein and Edison, often spoke of the great value of their mistakes. I think we are shortchanging our children and ourselves, by trying to avoid mistakes and failures. The lessons I remember best are those where I "failed."