21 JULY 2014

Getting Students to Do Things for Themselves

Getting Students to Do Things for Themselves

Spoon-feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.

(E. M. Forster)

Something which often comes up during training events is whether or not teachers think they are working too hard inside the classroom (and, for that matter, outside, too). Invariably the answer from teachers is pretty much a unanimous and resounding ‘Yes, we are!’ A follow-up question is usually something along the lines of: ‘Well, if you think you are working too hard, who is probably not working very hard?’ The answer, of course, is ‘The students’, which leads very neatly into a third question: ‘And why is that?’ And so to the topic of this blog and the reason for E M Forster’s words: ‘Spoon-feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.’

‘Spoon-feeding’ suggests that we are providing so much help and support to someone (in our case, students) that they need to do very little for themselves, whether this is thinking about something, asking questions about something, or actually producing something. Spoon-feeding is often seen as a traditional (and outdated) teaching approach, a type of ‘rote-learning’ system, in which teachers ‘feed’ students with information, students memorise it and regurgitate it for a test or an exam, and then forget it. No doubt many of us have experienced such a system, either because we have had to teach in such a way, or have been on the receiving end of the approach. Judit Neurink in an online article explains the spoon-feeding approach using a wonderful analogy: ‘I have at times compared a group of students … with a nest full of baby birds, who open their beaks to receive the food the parent is bringing in.’*

If an educational system encourages this approach to teaching and learning, then we can hardly blame students for sitting back with their mouths open, waiting to be fed by teachers. Students will normally accept whatever is offered, without question, more often than not because it is the easy option, but also because they have learned through experience that it works.

The real problem of course comes to the fore when learners move from a spoon-feeding context into one which expects learners to do things for themselves, to be inquisitive, to ask questions, and not to accept things at face value. This often happens when teenagers move from high school to college or university, or from one culture to another. When students who are not used to questioning things are suddenly expected to do exactly that, a degree of shock usually follows.

‘The curriculum’, ‘the system’ and ‘the final exam’ are all frequently blamed for much of what goes on in the classroom, both in terms of effective and less-effective teaching and learning. However, as educators, we need to be aware of the hazards of adopting and prolonging a spoon-feeding approach, and, as Judit Neurink concludes: ‘We need vision, and decision makers who understand the needs of education in the 21st Century.’* We need, therefore, to ensure that our classroom practice promotes questioning and thinking, and encourages students to find out what information is available to them, above and beyond what the teacher and the coursebook offer them.

To end this blog post, the very well-known Chinese proverb below aptly sums up the discussion:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

(Chinese Proverb)

* Judit Neurink


Peter Lucantoni has had a long career in English language teaching and teacher training in Europe, the Middle East, and, since 1993, in Cyprus. He is the author and co-author of several popular coursebooks for students including Cambridge IGCSE English as a Second Language (fourth edition).