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Weaning the Helpless Handraisers: Part 1 Reinforcing Helplessness

The Same Kids Every Day

During the first part of the lesson, call it input, students usually pay attention fairly well. You are engaging them, interacting with them, and “working the crowd.”

But, during Guided Practice, when you have the nerve to ask the students to do some work, the hard part of the lesson begins. Using time honored words of teaching, you say,

“…and, if you are still having difficulty, you may raise your hand, and I will be around to help you as soon as I can.”

No sooner have these words left your lips when the hands go up. Are they the same students every day? You could give me their names before you enter the building.

Helping the Helpless Handraisers

We are not talking about eager students who occasionally need help. We are talking about your helpless handraisers – the ones whose hands will be waving in the air no matter what you do.

You go to your first helpless handraiser and say,

“What do you need help with?”

They say,

“I don’t understand what to do here.”

You say,

“What part don’t you understand?”

They say,

“All of it.”

Sound familiar? Now you begin to slowly and carefully tutor the needy student through the lesson step by step. Some students prefer the personal touch.

How long will you be with this student? I have measured it hundreds and hundreds of times. The average helping interaction lasts about four-and-a-half minutes!

As you tutor your helpless handraiser, the noise level in the room rises. In 5 seconds the murmuring has spread. In 10 seconds you can hear individual voices above the others. In 15 seconds it has become loud, and someone is roaming around the room – a quick lesson in, “Either you work the crowd, or the crowd works you.”

Now what do you do?

“All right class, it’s altogether too noisy in here. Robert, would you please take your seat! Now, class, you all have work to do, and I cannot be everywhere at once …”

You know the tune. And, when you are finished helping the first student, guess what is waiting?

Reinforcing Helplessness

It is during Guided Practice that the wheels fall off. Under the banner of “working independently,” we tutor the same half-dozen students day after day while the rest of the class gets noisy. It is the most predictable pattern of “goofing off” and time wasting in the classroom, and the most predictable source of teacher stress and exhaustion.

What does the helpless handraiser receive for their lack of effort? How about you – your caring and loving time and attention – the most powerful reinforcer in the classroom. We literally pay the student to be helpless. And, no student will ever grow up and get “on the ball” if we reinforce them daily for remaining helpless and dependent.

Weaning the Helpless Handraisers

If you simply “explain what they don’t know,” you will walk right into the trap described above. Instead, you must wean the helpless handraiser from a pattern of passivity and dependency that is usually chronic. If you are to break the cycle, you must know how to make helpless handraisers into independent learners.

How do you give corrective feedback so that you do not reinforce helplessness? What is the method? It is far more complex than you might imagine.

In this installment I will focus on the verbal modality. What do you say? In future installments (parts 2 and 3) I will focus on the visual and physical modalities.

All of the modalities must work together, or weaning will not take place. After all, the student does not want to be weaned. The helpless handraiser wants you to do the work for them. They will resist your efforts at weaning.

Giving Corrective Feedback Correctly

For starters, corrective feedback must be brief. The longer you stay with the helpless handraiser, the more you reinforce helplessness. And, the longer you stay, the more rowdy the classroom becomes.

So, most of the talk has to go. Dump the “yaketty yak.”

Most of the yaketty yak is a waste of time anyway. You know, in one ear, and out the other. That is why all learning takes place one step at a time.

So, just focus on the next step. Simply prompt and leave. Keep your words clear and simple as you answer the following question for the student:

What do I do next?

Be clear, be brief, and be gone.

Wallowing Weaners

Beautiful! You have focused the student’s attention and given them what they need in order to continue. It only took a few sentences. Now you can resume working the crowd so that the disruptions do not build.

Sounds good, but weaning is not that easy. Remember, helpless handraisers want you to do the work for them. Do not think they will give up the game so easily.

The most common way of keeping you from leaving is wallowing. Helpless handraisers are experts at wallowing. Call it the “Yeah, buts.”

“Yeah, but I don’t understand what to do here on this part.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t explain this.”

How do you replace wallowing with work? To get past wallowing, you will have to exploit the visual modality. Tune in next month to learn how.

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