Last reviewed 4 February 2019

John Walker considers how carefully limiting teacher intervention can embody challenge for learners and improve their independence — especially in science education.

Recently, I was teaching a group of chemistry students about the finer points of relative atomic mass and how this could be calculated using a machine called a “mass spectrometer”. After some explanation, I gave them some tricky calculations to attempt. A few minutes later, I could hear a few of them frustrated over a specific issue which was a barrier to them solving the calculation. As someone who understood what the barrier was and how to overcome it, I was tempted to help them. On another occasion, I was recently facilitating some professional development for teachers who wanted to increase student autonomy in science. It was apparent from the conversation that a particular group was struggling with a task I had given them. It would have been very easy for me to step in and tell them what they needed to do.

In both cases above, the course of action I opted for was to do nothing, and in each case, my learners solved their own problems. By eavesdropping on the discussions, I could detect what their understanding was so that I could check that they had indeed “cracked it” in a satisfactory manner.

Planning for limiting intervention

In effect, the things that caused difficulty in the scenarios above were catalysts for subsequent learning progress being made and this progress happened without my involvement or, to put it more accurately, it happened without my direct involvement. I was doing something, but it was probably not obvious to the students and teachers. I was monitoring learning, keeping a check on things by listening and watching, and making judgments about the likelihood of them solving the problems. There was also my orchestration of the situations in the first place — and it was my planning and prior input which created the conditions in which my learners were adequately primed to tackle a challenging task, which necessarily could not be easy. In Vygotsky’s theory of the “Zone of Proximal Development”, in which the teacher is the “knowledgeable other” who facilitates learning of something the learner cannot achieve alone, it can be easy to assume that the teacher provides help in some overt, information-transmitting way. That can be useful in some situations, but it does not have to be the case.

Tackling student dependence on the teacher

Part of an experienced teacher’s tacit professional knowledge is in being able to make appropriate judgments about the most helpful interventions for learners. In effect, it is about recognising what the most helpful type of help is. Sometimes, not intervening is ultimately helpful to learning. Teachers who always intervene when things get difficult can unwittingly create a culture of dependence. Students learn that they do not have to try too hard because the teacher will always dive in and rescue them. A swimming analogy is indeed apt; nobody learns to swim properly until the armbands and floats are taken away.

Learning about learning

You cannot realistically know that you will not need to intervene when learners get stuck, but you can plan to make it less likely. A key ingredient, which is often missing for children at school, is their own understanding of the learning process. Children who understand that challenge and difficulty are essential prerequisites to learning progress will embrace those things more readily. Those who think learning is essentially a process of knowledge transmission from teacher to pupil are more likely to feel annoyed and frustrated by the teacher who does not rescue them. With the chemistry students I mentioned above, I made a point of discussing with them afterwards the mechanics of their learning, drawing attention to my lack of intervention and the learning opportunity that this presented. By making this explicit, I wanted them to be able to recognise the value of this sort of situation, hopefully equipping them to repeat such success in future.

A holistic approach to science teaching

The principles I have described are, I hope, helpful in themselves for the kind of conceptual learning which is fundamental to science. They are also an essential component of a well-established instructional model called the “5Es2” which was developed in the USA specifically to help teachers help their students become better science learners. During one of the phases of this, “Explore”, it is essential that the teacher does not close down learning opportunities by giving answers and explanations before students have been able to exploit the chance to learn for themselves. The teachers have to carefully limit their interventions to keep students focused on finding their own solutions. Later, in the final phase of “Evaluate”, students reflect not just on what they have learned, but how they have learned it, so that their learning capacity grows over time as well as their science knowledge.

Key points in summary

  • Careful limiting of teacher intervention can ensure students remain challenged.

  • Prior planning is essential to ensure optimum conditions for students to attempt challenging tasks.

  • Students need to understand that difficulty and challenge are essential for learning progress.