Amidst the current spate of trapped birds, a woodpecker flew into our garage. We opened the garage door and created an incredibly convenient mechanism by which it might escape — but it refused. The poor creature flew around in confusion, running up against the walls and the ceiling. It found every crevice and cranny except for the gaping opening right in front of its beak.
Then we opened a side door, and the bird flew right out. It literally flew out before our eyes — almost as if it had been waiting for exactly that door to open.
The same thing happened a few days later. A woodpecker — probably the same one — refused to leave by using the most obvious route. Again, once we opened the side door, it left within minutes. I will probably never know what it’s like to be a bird, and so I’m not certain exactly why it preferred one door to another. All I know is that the bird made sense of the situation in its own way — and that way isn’t the one that made the most sense to me.
As teachers, we need to understand the lesson of the bird.
Trapped in the Classroom
Teachers — especially those of us who did well in school when we were young — are often guilty of opening a single door. I know I was.
We build an awesome lesson to teach students a great way to understand a concept. We deliver that lesson in the most excellent fashion, bask in the glory of a job well done, and then we pull our hair out when some of our students stubbornly refuse to understand.
So we go back to the well again. We teach the same thing the same way, louder and slower. We open that same door a little wider — we use more little tricks to get them to pay attention, or to give them more practice. But if our way doesn’t make sense to a student — if the door we’ve opened isn’t one they’ll fly through — it’s crucial for us to explore other doors, even if we think those doors are less than ideal. A teacher cannot afford to be a purist; she must be a pragmatist, and must explore diligently to discover what works.
Multiplying fractions is a great example. There are really, really cool visual ways to help students understand this content concretely or pictorially. If you help students put the pieces together carefully and wisely, most students will fly right through. They’ll have an actual conceptual understanding of why you can multiply the numerators and multiply the denominators and come up with the answer. Once they really get it, most of them will love that feeling of understanding and will be able to retain and apply their learning reliably. Their middle school teachers will thank you for creating mathematical thinkers.
But what about that kid who doesn’t get it? What about the bird that won’t use the garage door?
I am not going to tell you that every way to understand a topic is equally good, because that is a lie. Often different ways are just fine, of course. If we’re teaching a mnemonic trick, then singing a little ditty is just as valuable as learning an acronym. If our way doesn’t have a real, objective benefit, then for goodness sake, don’t get caught up on teaching things your way. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
But what if our way actually is objectively superior? For instance, when adding multi-digit numbers mentally, it’s much easier to work from left to right than to move from right to left. It takes less mental energy. It’s quicker and more reliable, and every single one of the best mental mathematicians work that way. What if the door the bird wants to fly through leads it straight toward trouble?
Open the Right Door
This is where the art of teaching comes in. Think of the individual child, and then do what’s best.
If one student is confident and full of curiosity, with a strong growth mindset and a willingness to learn, then keep pushing them to learn that most excellent way. If this is a topic that they’ll use routinely for the rest of their life, then it’s worth investing some time to learn it more efficiently now.
But if this is one of those topics that grown-ups rarely use (like the long division algorithm or the substrates involved in phosphorylation), or if the student is growing excessively frustrated, then it’s best to try something different — even if that different way seems silly to you. These are sometimes difficult choices and we won’t be right every time. But by using some simple guidelines to inform our decisions, we can make better and better choices about when and how to open doors for our students.