Be. Less. Helpful.

I was going to address the findings of the Horizon Report, but then I watched Dan Myers’ Ted Talk and thought that his take on the state of education had a more fundamental importance and relevance to my practice.

Myers worries that today’s education (and specifically textbooks) have a “Two and a Half Men” approach to problem-solving: they create the expectation that problems should be neatly packaged and the solution readily apparent if given steps are following. In other words, there is too much scaffolding: we are “paving a smooth straight path… and congratulating our students for how well they can step over the small cracks on the way…We don’t involve [students] in the formulation of the problem.” Myers’ solution:

  1. Use multimedia.
  2. Encourage student intuition.
  3. Ask the shortest question you can.
  4. Let students build the problem.
  5. Be less helpful. 

In history class, the kind of reasoning we want to do revolves around constructing a logical arguments supported by appropriate historical evidence. For example:

  • “Why did Chinese dynasties last for so long?” (from World History I)
  • “Compared to other civilizations, could Muslim civilization be considered the greatest?” (from World History I)
  • “The Chinese and Russian Revolutions were neither short nor sweet: they were both long and messy ordeals.” How accurately does this statement describe these two revolutions? (from World History II)

When we construct questions like this, we try to make them evaluative. This is why I’m a big fan of the phrase, “To what extent…” I’ve found that these questions are quite difficult for my 9th and 10th grade students, who seem to arrive in my class at one of four stages of readiness:

  1. Able to make sweeping generalizations that are largely accurate (“They had an organized government and religious tolerance.”) but unsubstantiated with any specific evidence.
  2. Able to make relevant lists of specific evidence that are fairly organized in a five-paragraph format, but without explanation that ties that evidence to the question.
  3. Able to synthesize specific evidence and explanation/analysis into a format that directly answers the question. (This step describes my expectation for my students, and my B+ and A students can do this)
  4. Able to do step #3, but with extensive discussion of that evidence that shows a sense of chronology and historical context. (for 9th and 10th graders, this would exceed my expectation – my unquestioned A students – perhaps 3 in 40 – can do this)

Given stage #4, I find it relevant to quote from Niall Ferguson’s latest work:

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one fucking thing after another’?”

I scaffold such essay questions in class in a number of ways, as evidenced by this nonexhaustive list:

  1. Providing essay outline worksheets, asking students to brainstorm evidence, then make claims, then a thesis.
  2. Using scored discussions in class that differentiate between arguments that are unsupported opinions, ones that are logical but unsupported, and ones that use specific historical evidence.
  3. Brainstorming evidence in groups, and then individually writing short answer responses that are then evaluated by the class with the aid of my Elmo document camera
  4. Using think-pair-share questions that break up my lectures and ask students to consider historical significance (“If you were a German, would you have felt optimistic in 1919? In 1928?”)

Myers has made me wonder whether I do too much handholding, though. For example, I recall several times where my colleagues and I have made short answers questions MORE specific to clue students in on what evidence to include. In preparation for the Muslim civilization question above, I gave students 6 possible comparisons they could make with other civilizations and asked them to choose two of them with which to write two practice body paragraphs – in other words, I was teasing out the steps to the problem rather than having them do it. In the future, then, I might have students generate a list of possible comparisons (individually, in groups, or as a class, depending on the nature of the particular students). I suppose I’m grappling with the “meaning of life” question in my teaching:


Seeing as how I’m not going to answer this in 800 words, I’ll conclude by throwing out a question to those grade 9/10 teachers reading this: Do your students fall into one of the four categories above? Are my expectations for what they can do appropriate, or lower/higher than what you see? To what extent is their ability to move between steps a function of their mental development rather than my teaching?

Random thought as to how wikis can be applied: it would be AWESOME to have a bank of short answer questions and essay questions – divided by topic and, in the case of the short answer questions, by points. Such questions are the essence of history class (yeah, yeah, all classes, UbD, essential questions, blah blah blah) but we teachers spend an inordinate amount of time duplicating others’ work. If there were a wiki out there that teachers could contribute to, I think it would be rapidly growing and evolving resource that would NOT necessarily lead to a homogenization of the course, since the flexible and editable nature of the wiki would be able to accomodate diverse perspectives.

14 thoughts on “Be. Less. Helpful.”

  1. I really found Dan Meyer’s Ted Talk to reverberate with me and my own teaching. For some time I watched the US education system teach to the test at an overall expense to learning. Now that I am teaching in Asia, specifically Thailand with mostly Thai students, I am finding that the majority of the students aren’t critically thinking on their own. I miss the notion that it is important to teach students to be skeptical and questioning in order to form their own opinions on beliefs on current topics. You are precisely correct that we need to emphasize higher level thinking and problem solving within the classroom today. My last post on connectivism ( pretty much explained the same idea. In a world that is increasingly becoming more complex, it is important that we are preparing students to become problem solvers and enjoy collaborating with one another (especially those that may have different opinions that our own) to find a solution. This shouldn’t be an “easy-path” approach, like solving a math problem in a textbook where all of the steps are already laid out for you. This is simply not reflective of today’s global problems.

    1. A lack of questioning and critical thinking in Asian students is a common refrain of their Western teachers. Do you also see the pattern as a function of culture, age/mental development, failure of teacher modeling, or something else?

  2. It’s been a while since I watched Dan’s TED Talk, but I think it is important and relevant to remember that he is talking specifically about math education and curriculum. The evolution of the “Be Less Helpful” and “What Can You Do With This?” memes has been about engaging students in challenging problem solving in a non-threatening and compelling way by asking a seemingly simple question and then getting out of their way.

    Since I am a reformed math teacher, all of Dan’s examples resonate strongly with me. I’m not so sure how this would work in other disciplines like English or Humanities. Could it be as simple as asking “Which civilization is the greatest?” or “What’s the best book ever written?” and then let the students argue over what metrics should be used? Because math problems have quantifiable solutions (What part is steepst? That part! How long will it take? This long! Will I make the shot? Yes!) it’s easy to show the students the resolution of the problem that they are solving. How would you resolve the civilization or book debate?

    (Actually, now that I write this reply, I think I’ve convinced myself that all that Dan is advocating is a concept-based, inquiry-driven classroom and curriculum… PYP/MYP anyone?)

    1. “How would you resolve the civilization or book debate?”

      There’s no quantifiable solution, so we focus on whether the students call pull in specific historical evidence to support a given opinion. I might not agree with their opinion, but if they have an interpretation of events that is defensible based on what actually happened, then I’m satisfied. You’re quite right when you say they might argue over what metrics should be used – part of the scaffolding process I use is having students explore different possible metrics (cultural achievements, political stability, intellectual advances) and brainstorming the evidence related to each. A common formula we use is RECIPES –


      But there’s also GRAPES (Geography, Religion, Achievements, Politics, Economics, Society) and, for the more (or less?) mature students, SPERM (Social, Political, Economic, Religious, Military)

      1. But isn’t the journey more important than the destination? The question with no “correct” answer is the best sort of question. It is precisely the creating of metrics, and the backing up of opinions with (snippets of ) facts, and the pulling apart of other peoples arguments that shows evidence of a 4 on your 1-4 scale.

        I teach IB Diploma Biology where all is broken into small specific and precise snippets, neatly numbered. If the kids can memorize well, they can do well. I hate that, and wish there was more place for the synthesis of arguments, and for reasoning outside the very neat box.

        Thankfully there is more room within the MYP to teach and encourage these sorts of skills. I do feel though that IB Diploma Bio does a disservice to these kids, as for the final two years of high school, they can pass well, just based on memorization. Yes I throw a curve-ball on a daily basis, to try to encourage thinking. It is usually the same kids answering, and engaging, showing a deep understanding. The saddest thing as it is very often not these kids who do best in the formal IB assessments, but the quiet, I can memorize everything kids, who may not have more than a basic understanding of the systems.

        I guess the ability to answer IB Biology exam questions in a test situation is very different to the ability to understand, suggesting an issue with the system.

        1. We teachers need to be “held accountable” for students’ learning – and this imperative manifests itself as the need for quantifiable assessments with black and white answers. This, in turn, does not lend itself to questions with no “correct” answers!

          In any event, this is why application-type assignments are so important. In 9th grade World History I, our 4th quarter project is to invent your own civilization. This demands creativity, humor, and a deep understanding of the concepts we’ve studied (in the pursuit of making the “best” civilization) – but then you ALSO have to justify why you’ve chosen the government, social structure, religion, etc. based on comparisons to past civilizations, which is where the “memorize everything” bit comes in.

  3. I share you frustrations here Matt, as an IB geography teacher getting students climbing from 2 to 3 is by far the largest of the steps you identify. Some of my grade 11 students come into geography with the ability to recall information and write beautifully, but if you throw them a curly question, which does not fit with how they were fed the information in the first place, they can fall to pieces. A particular issue with paper three of the IB geography course, which is based purely on synthesis and evaluation.

    Is this difficulty developmental or pedagogical? Don’t know- but the strategies we have been reading about so far in this course have to go someway to improving these skills with our students.

    1. One more thing- I have a wiki for IB Geography that I use to help students revise ( ). However, my school is ditching IB Geography (i know, sad)- but I would like to see the site continue. If you are interested in working together or building on what i have started shoot me an email.

      Another great website for IB Geo:


    2. I frequently wonder whether teachers really need a stronger background in psychology – one would imagine that our expectations should be aligned with what is biologically possible. I don’t mean to suggest that our expectations now are unreasonable, but with the push for “data driven” education to bring some quantifiable accountability to our profession, you would think that it would be a logical place to start.

  4. “Random thought as to how wikis can be applied: it would be AWESOME to have a bank of short answer questions and essay questions – divided by topic and, in the case of the short answer questions, by points. Such questions are the essence of history class (yeah, yeah, all classes, UbD, essential questions, blah blah blah) but we teachers spend an inordinate amount of time duplicating others’ work. If there were a wiki out there that teachers could contribute to, I think it would be rapidly growing and evolving resource that would NOT necessarily lead to a homogenization of the course, since the flexible and editable nature of the wiki would be able to accomodate diverse perspectives.”

    Hi Matt-

    Don’t ask me how i ended up reading this (completely random) but I was very interested in what you are saying. Being a history teacher myself at an International School in Asia, I am constantly battling with getting students to transcend the stages you outlined. Similarly, I love “To what extent” questions- but have trouble getting students to really move between 2, 3, and 4 on your markscheme.

    However, in response to your inquiry about a wiki, I would be very much interested in working with you to create such a project. Being a teacher of both IB and IGCSCE History, i have access to a wide variety of past paper questions that I could collate into a workable resource. -selfishly, this would also be good for my students who are about to begin their revision for exams in May. I am curious what you had in mind and what you think I could do to help get this idea rolling. (For example each IGCSE and IB past paper provides a markscheme with a range of “possible answers”-

    I am fairly familiar with wikis, see website, but could use some feedback from you on what you had in mind. It is a project I don’t mind getting started, but could use a little inspiration from you and your colleagues.

    Shoot me an email-


    Ian Gabrielson
    Teacher of IB and IGCSE History, IB Geogrpahy, and IGCSE Global Perspectives.

    1. If anyone else is interested in getting in on this, let me know. I’m going to think up a proposal this weekend and post it on my blog.

  5. Hi Matt. I teach Grade 6 at Saudi Aramco Schools in Dhahran. We are an American school – so I have only a basic understanding of IB and ICGSE. We are changing our sixth grade curriculum next year from geography to world history. We use UbD-based designed templates, and we try to emphasize at all times the Essential Questions – or what we call at sixth grade, the Big Ideas. We are also looking at using GRAPES, as you mentioned.
    As we anticipate this change, I would like to “monitor” what you all have been talking about, in terms of a common language of essential questions and a bank of short answer and essay questions. We have something similar here that we all use – for geography at a middle school level. I would like to “lurk about the edges” and contribute whatever I can – perhaps when I get a better feel for world history and our new curriculum. Suffice it to say, I am always looking for ways to get kids thinking, discussing, writing….about the big ideas and concepts of geography (and now world history)…and get away from the memorization of capitals and major exports.
    Loved your original post – and the quote from Niall Ferguson. Dude hit it on the head…

    1. Well, I’ll be posting some of my materials and UbDs on the “My Teaching Resources” page when I get around to it. You’re welcome to it. It’s all very half-formed stuff; I may get around to cleaning it up this summer. Definitely stick around to see what happens in terms of a question bank. It’s surprisingly difficult to find good essential questions, even with the full power of the internet at your fingers!

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