To Teach or to Elicit

This post could well have been about the illusion of learning within a group. I’ll let you work out why that might be.

But it was inspired by this blog about whether to teach or to elicit understanding of a poem and is about elicit or tell.

Let us first try to explore what the eliciting process does. In this approach, typically, the teach will be wanting the student(s) to come up with the or even an appropriate answer in relation to the poem. The rationale of this is either that it is better learning if the child comes up with, creates, the answer OR that there are different appropriate answers and it is not up to the teacher to decide for the child what interpretation to take.

First there is no evidence that discovery learning, which the first case is, works for new learners. They simply do not know enough to be able to construct answers on material that is new to them. They may well have to think hard to come up with an answer and that is good for learning. The problem is that many of them will be thinking the wrong things and that is what they are more likely to learn.

The second point I want to make is that not all children will arrive at an answer at the same time. What often happens is the teacher asks the question and one child gives a correct answer. What is there to say that any other child has also reached this view? So the process of discovery may have worked for that one child but the other 29 are being taught the answer! Unless we have a classroom where each child is acoustically sealed from every other child then all that is happening is instead of the teacher telling the answer a child in the class tells he answer and the teacher agrees. It makes little difference if the teacher does not agree with the first child and goes on to ask others. Essentially one of the answers is out there.

The second reason for some teachers not wanting to tell a child what the poem means, as in the original blog, is that one should not tell a child what to think about the poem. I have some sympathy with this but what is it we are trying to teach the child? the process of analysis and that has the outcome of coming up with an/the answer(s). Those answers will be used in an examination. We should deny the child access to the examination by telling them what greater minds have concluded? We could always tell them that there are other interpretations possible. We might even tell them those alternatives. It should be possible to see why the given interpretations fit with the evidence in the poem.

Perhaps we need two kinds of poem. Those where we go through the analysis and tell the possible answers and a second type where children practice the analysis and can come up with whatever answer they see fits. The second type would tell us how well they have understood the analysis process and/or the background knowledge they have or still need to be taught.

Think about how this applies to groups created to learn. Perhaps I should tell you…