Why I never give straight answers

There are some questions that you should never answer. This is true when you are facing justice, your angry wife, or students.

Carl Zimmer, a famous science writer, complains about how students keep asking him homework questions. There is no doubt some degree of intellectual laziness mixed with a lack of respect. But I believe that the lazy questions are actually a sign that schools are failing students.

Back when I attended college, you better had an appointment if you expected to see a professor outside of class. And chances are that the professor would miss your appointment. I once waited outside the office of a professor for an hour while I had dirty chat with his mistress. And if you ever got a professor cornered, you better be prepared! If you came to a professor unprepared, with lazy questions, he would dismiss you without a second look. Sending an email to a professor was unthinkable: it would surely go unanswered unless he was your thesis supervisor. (These professors should not be commended for their behaviour, of course.)

And yet, experts were far more precious than they are today. There was just no possibility of getting the answers through the Internet. With some luck, you could get a decent textbook at the library, and you had to figure things out by yourself.

Today, students have 10 or 100 times the ressources I had as a college student. Yet hardly any of them have learned to use these ressources. Instead, they email experts and hope for the best.

When I started teaching shortly after graduating, I thought that whenever I got a question by a student, I should answer it as clearly and directly as possible. And so I did. Until I started teaching advanced students, until I started supervising graduate students… and I realized that a whole lot of them were basically damaged. They simply could not figure things out on their own. They could not make any judgement call. They couldn’t find the right answer by first trying 100 wrong answers.

If I solved a problem in front of them, they could take notes and reproduce my solution. But they often wouldn’t even try coming up with an original solution of their own. They certainly would never look critically at the solution I provided.

I realized that we were “over-schooling” the students. Given today’s technology, we need to give fewer answers to the students, not more. Though this may sound ironic, I think that students should spend less time in a classroom today than they did in the industrial era.

It is maybe no wonder that employers are not eager to hire college graduates. Beside the bad economy, there might be the very real concern that graduates are ill-prepared to deal with the real world as it is in 2013.

Whenever my kids ask me a question, I almost always ask them back “what do you think?” And then I listen carefully. Often I will ask more questions. Similarly, to teach them something, I often simply ask a question. For example, last week-end, I asked my two boys whether automated teller machines were robots. They agreed that they were robots. Then one of them added “but they lack wheels to move around”. And then I asked “but they are still robots?” And they both said “yes, sure”. We then launched into a short debate about what a robot is.

I try to follow the same process with my students, including my graduate students. I don’t always have the patience. It takes less time and it is more gratifying to simply give the shortest possible answer. But I still try to answer first by a question so that the student is forced to think a little bit about the question. I estimate that 80% of the time, the student ends up answering his own question. I am sure that most students find that I have a bad attitude (“why won’t he just give me a straight answer?”), but I am also sure that they also feel proud to have figured it out on their own. And that is what I am ultimately trying to show: you can figure most things out on your own, given a little bit of help.

Source: I got the idea for this post by reading Eugene Wallingford.

8 thoughts on “Why I never give straight answers”

  1. Well, I do agree your viewpoints. However, I think the root cause of the problem is NOT the students themselves. In fact, the nowadays education systems and teachers are the producers. “It is rather to teach a person how to fish than just give him a fish!!” How many teachers wish to spend tons of time to guide their students through every single step to solve a problem? Particularly under those exam-oriented education systems. And please remember, not everybody is a genius. The most important responsibility of a teacher is to “Teach”.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I teach most effectively to people who learn like I do, which is to figure things out having been pointed in the right general direction. But as an occasional adjunct professor, I have had to learn to teach students who learn by watching me do the work at least once. But in both cases, my goal is not to make them learn the material (only they can learn it themselves, I can’t “make” them do anything) but to help them to learn how they learn best. That is the only non-perishable thing a teacher can actually develop in a student.

  3. As a TA, I had a defensive pose which was generally to lead the student to the solution, but they have to do the stepping. Oh, and giving up is not allowed. You WILL leave this office KNOWING how the answer is derived.

    After their first try, not a whole lot of them showed up again, and those who did, were a pleasure to work with. They wanted to KNOW.

  4. Asking to see a student’s code, or a sketch of a data structure, is another effective approach. Then I can ask them to explain it to me. Sometimes, the explanation jiggles their brain enough that they see the answer they need. Other times, we find out something they really don’t understand.

  5. @Eugene Wallingford

    If it is a programming assignment, I would definitively be tempted to ask to see the source code. And, indeed, it might be enough to get the student going.

  6. You are so right on this one, I can`t agree more. We’ve became so good at explaining, that students don`t need to know how to learn anymore.

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