Here is a question for you: what do you do when you set your class an assignment but then one pupil comes to your desk and says: “Sir, I don’t have a pencil”? How you answer that may well summarise your whole teaching style and philosophy and determine your effectiveness as a teacher.

In short, you are likely to do one of several things: you might give her a pencil and say, “Go”. You might say, “So?” Or you might say, “No!” What do you do?

The easiest thing is to give her what she wants, a pencil, but that will not help her take responsibility for herself – she will always come to the teacher for a pencil. What is more, if she comes to the teacher for a pencil, she will as likely come to the teacher for the answer – and too often the teacher does give her the answer too. The hardest thing is to not give her a pencil and make her work it out for herself. She must work out that, even though the teacher will not give her a pencil, she is still
required to do the work. She must make a plan for herself. And we must teach her how to do so. We must help our pupils know how to solve problems for themselves.

Many teachers will claim they do teach problem-solving to their pupils. Yet how often might those same teachers, when a pupil says he does not know the answer, give the answer to him, or simply move on to someone else for the answer? That is the easy, quick, painless option – it will save time, so we can move on the next topic. It is not helping the pupil though. How often too do teachers accept answers only from pupils who do put their hands up? We do not ask the ones who do not put their hands up because they may be embarrassed at not knowing the answer or they may embarrass us by not answering. And if a pupil says he does not know the answer, do we just move on and ask someone else? That may solve your problem but it does not help them learn how to solve their problems. And the answer to the problems will be found in the questions!

If we are going to help our pupils solve problems, we must ask the right questions; too often we only ask a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question. Similarly we often ask a question by making a statement requiring the pupils to fill in the last what? The last word. Exactly! That will not help them in future.

We must be willing to wait for answers to questions; the waiting will pay dividends in the long run as if the pupil gets to the point of understanding the process as much as the problem then we will not have to wait in the future. We must be patient.

We must persist with asking the question if a pupil gets it wrong or claims she does not know the answer. Our mistake here is that we repeat the same question instead of re-wording it or breaking it down into smaller chunks, starting from the point where the pupil has knowledge.

We must ask questions to all pupils, otherwise the quiet or lazy ones will leave it all to the keen ones and in such a way learn nothing.

It is not only in the academic sphere where this happens; it is also found in the sporting arena. The “Play Station” coach who stands at the side of the pitch and screams constant instructions to his players thinks he is helping because the team is winning but the team is learning nothing – as with the computer game, he is moving the players around on the field instead of the screen; he is playing the game, not the pupils. A school sports match is an exam to see how much the players have
learned. They must be allowed to work out the answer for themselves to the problems that the opposition pose and if they cannot, at half-time the coach can help them work it out by asking them questions (not by telling them what to do). The players must solve the problem, not the coach.

Our prime responsibility, as a teacher and as a coach, should be to help pupils solve problems. It is not to get them to pass their exams; that is their responsibility. Our responsibility is to train them to think for themselves, to solve problems for themselves. If they cannot work out how to solve the problem of having no pencil, they will not begin to know how to work out the bigger problems. And if we as teachers cannot work out how to do this, then we are the ones with the problem.