Sunday, 20 November 2011 17:28

Provide Assistance that Empowers

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When helping students with their math activities and other academic work, it is often difficult for teachers and parents to know how much assistance to provide. If we don’t offer enough support, students’ struggles are likely to continue, and kids may become frustrated and discouraged. They may even shut down. On the other hand, if we provide too much assistance, students may complete their work successfully, but, in the process, we may deny them opportunities to think for themselves and develop as independent thinkers and problem-solvers.

In these situations I think about a comparable situation that happens in gyms all the time when people are lifting weights. Specifically, I think about the bench press exercise in which people lie  on their backs on a flat bench and attempt to push a barbell from their chests into the air for a certain number of repetitions.

Imagine my friend, Mark, is trying to bench press 20 pounds ten times. Because the weight is so light, he can easily complete the set on his own. When the amount of weight increases, however, Mark needs me to spot for him so that the barbell doesn’t remain on his chest when he reaches the point of muscle failure.

Assume that when trying to bench press 185 pounds, Mark’s goal is to complete eight repetitions. He finishes the first six reps on his own, yet struggles halfway through his seventh. I am standing behind him the entire time with my hands underneath the bar, ready to assist. In this situation I have a choice to make, and I basically have three options. First, I can do nothing, but if I choose this approach, the barbell will come down on his chest, an injury is likely to occur, and our friendship will probably end.

On the other hand, I can take over completely and finish the rep for him. If I simply grab the bar at the first sign of struggle and return it to the weight rack on my own, I ensure his safety, but I have done nothing to help him improve his strength. As a result, the next time he bench presses, there is no reason to expect that he will be able to lift anymore weight than he did this time.

The best approach in this situation is for me to put my hands under the barbell and do as little work as possible to help him keep the bar moving. If he’s able to do most of the work himself, my effort will be very gentle. If his struggle increases, I will assume more of the workload. I will continue to adjust the amount of assistance I provide based on the amount of work Mark is able to do for himself.

If he only needs a small amount of assistance on the seventh rep, he may choose to try for an eighth, and on that rep I will probably have to increase the amount of support I provide. The strength gains that this set produces occur mostly in these final two reps, not the first six that he could do independently. My performance as a spotter helps him go beyond what he could do independently to move to that next level of strength. The next time he bench presses, he will probably be able to do more of the work on his own because of the assistance I provided this time around.

These moments of struggle are crucial growth opportunities, and by carefully providing just enough guidance to help keep the bar moving, I am empowering my friend to move beyond his current capacity to a larger future capacity.

This same idea holds true in the classroom, and moments of struggle need to be savored as valuable growth opportunities. As teachers, if we are able to provide just enough assistance to keep students moving forward, we increase their capacity for the future. Sometimes that little assistance involves asking the right question, suggesting an appropriate strategy, offering encouragement, or reminding students to try an approach that they may have used successfully in the past. It never means abandoning them, and it never means telling them what to do.

We simply want to keep the bar moving.