How do you support your students while giving them the space to learn on their own?
With the recent passing of the holidays, I’m reminded of an anecdote from a few years ago. When my middle son, Ezra, was five, Casey and I gave him a Lego advent calendar to get him excited for Christmas. For each of those first 24 days in December, the calendar included a flimsy cardboard flap that hid the contents of a small box. Each box contained an unassembled, 10- to 15-piece Lego kit.
Every night after work, he and I would gather at the dining room table to put together the kit du jour. At five-years-old, Ezra was still learning how to interpret the wordless diagrams that instructed him on how to assemble the mini Lego set. For the first seven days in December, I took a very hands-on approach to “helping” him, but when he reached into the box on December 8th and pulled out a deconstructed fireplace set, he told me:
“I want to do it by myself … with you.”
Ezra’s innocent phrase has in many ways come to embody teaching and learning for me. I mean, he wanted it both ways. He sought the challenge of doing the work himself, but he also wanted me there for moral support and to provide some just-in-time advice or to snap together pieces when it became too difficult for his weak little hands.
Just like Ezra, our online students need to do the work themselves. They need to struggle. They need to become frustrated. They need to solve problems. They need the satisfaction that comes along with learning. They need to expect that learning will be challenging.
But our students also need us there to answer their questions. They need us to point them in the right direction. They need us to present them with challenges that are within—but not beyond—their reach. They need us to tell them when they’re doing a good job and when they’re missing the mark. They need us to help them to feel connected to the work they’re doing.
So get to know your students. Find out what challenges them. Find out what motivates them. Provide meaningful feedback that they can both understand and apply. Don’t overwhelm them. Be timely. Give out your mobile number, and let students message you with questions.
Let your students do it by themselves, but with you.
I was, of course, proud of Ezra for building the fireplace on his own. More importantly, he was immensely proud of himself. He felt rewarded, and he went on to assemble the remaining kits that month while I sat there by his side.