Dangers of Overprescriptive Teaching

Students need structure, especially students who struggle. Students need very clear expectations from their teachers so they know what to do. The more clarity and specificity in the directions the better. Rubrics and models show students what to strive for.

These are all familiar mantras, but I am not sure I believe them. I have always been uncomfortable with rubrics but that is another post – in fact, I wrote it last year. I have been thinking a lot about learning and life. We say we want to create life-long learners, but great achievements are not the result of following directions. There is no rubric for an Oscar winning film or a great novel. There is no single formula to make someone a successful teacher. There is not even a reliable process that scientists always use to approach a problem. In fact, this article about the limitations of the scientific method started me thinking about this today.

When we provide paths that become check lists, we are essentially giving kids Lego kits instead of boxes of random Legos. We will get the product we ask for, and if not, we will likely know how to judge what we get based on how close it comes to the image, but we will never get more. Each year, in Modern World History we do a group project where students trace a commodity through history. This year, we shifted the requirements for the bibliography from specifying how many book and scholarly sources to saying simply “Find the best sources” including books, articles, databases, etc. I still worry that we have done too much dictation of process and product in this project, but this is a start. I would rather talk to students about what makes a great collection of sources than have them match a formula.

Do we want students who can follow directions? Sometimes. Do we want students who can tackle a challenge from multiple angles? Always. Can we have a conversation with students asking them what they think the best qualities of a successful product or experiment are? Absolutely. Should we stand back and let them find their own path to the end? Yes. Should we be there to consult and provide suggestions and feedback along the way. Of course.

I think that in the end too much structure limits learning. If it really is about the process, that is where I want the most learning to happen. To learn, students need to think for themselves.


2 thoughts on “Dangers of Overprescriptive Teaching

  1. I agree. I’ve also found rubrics troubling in some ways. That being said, I use my writing rubric regularly. You can’t make a great film according to a rubric, but perhaps you can learn discrete skills better if guided, at first, by a rubric. But at some point, students have to be cut loose.

    Or perhaps they need to cut themselves loose. I remember when my own son really started reading books on his own for the first time. We were reading a book (The Rats of NIMH) aloud, a chapter every night, and he was getting into the book. He wanted to read more, and we said, well, if you want more, feel free to pick up the book and read. Which he did, making it through on his own.

    The point being, he had learned the skills himself, but until he had his own interior motivation for using them, he wasn’t a real reader. That suggests to me it’s not enough merely to remove scaffolding. Somehow you have to enable students to find their own passion to use the skills they’ve taught. That passion holds together the skills together.

    I tend to think that in the early phases, guided practice, even very guided practice, is necessary. (For example, see this article) But you have to keep the passion alive, because eventually it has to take over. It’s a tough balancing act.

    • I appreciate your perspective here, and I definitely agree that there needs to be some guidance. I do spend time helping kids with theses, topic sentences and organization – the keys to effective, clear written analysis. I also spend some time talking with them about writing for different audiences.

      What worries me is what I see as an attempt to spell things out so directly that there is no room to stray from the path. Teachers who see structure as objectivity, when true objectivity is an illusion. Too many directions force kids to play it safe and avoid risks.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, David. I believe it is about balance, too. I just see too much instruction that creates a dependency, risk aversion, and assembly line work. Like all of the things I write about, I am still working through this.

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