Holding Back

I’ve had a few experiences in the last couple of weeks that have made me think of the learning that happens when we hold back.  When we are patient with others so that they can come up with the solutions instead of giving others the answer.

One of our Science Learning Coordinators, Erica Alexander at TVDSB, recently showed a small group of Instructional Coaches some highly engaging “Electricity” experiments for Grade 6 students.

The first experiment Erica demonstrated used “energy” balls which are small ping pong like balls that light and make a sound when two small metal rectangles are pressed at the same time.  Similarly, one person can touch one rectangle and another person the other and when they join their other hands, the ball will light and sound.  In Grade 6, students caught on very quickly and without our prompting, got organized to see if the ball would light with a chain of 30 people connecting hands.  I’m not going to go into ALL of the details of this experiment and how I proceeded with the kids, because I want to focus on my struggle and having to calm down my instinct of being the provider of information. We didn’t “load their backpacks” ahead of time.  We did the experiment as a kick-off for this unit on “Electricity”.


After this experience, I asked students to share their theories about how this was all working.  Instead of telling them they just made a “system” and that the battery was the source of electricity and that essentially they were the wires in the circuit… I held back.  I would let students talk and sometimes I would just paraphrase what they said in other words.  I would ask questions for clarification or to push their thinking further, without leading too much.  We had an amazing debate in one of the classes about whether the energy was coming from the ball or if the energy was coming from our bodies.  I left without giving them the answers.

But the answers came to me.

The next day at school, they could not wait to tell me what they had learned.  A few had gone home and researched it, others had spoken to their parents about it.  And sure enough, these students explained to the others the concept of the system and an open and closed circuit.  We consolidated this piece with an article, which was all the more meaningful because every student in that class had had some experience with the concept before reading the information.  They owned it and the “literature” only helped to fine tune their understanding and help them with vocabulary.

Then it was my turn to blow their minds some more (thank you Erica!!) … I showed them that we could have the same chain and that if two people touched a metal desk chair leg that the circuit still worked.  But if we touched the top of the desk, it did not.  Now we were off and running investigating conductors and insulators…

Eventually we moved on to this Steve Spangler video, where we made a battery. I didn’t show the video, I demonstrated the experiment without talking (again holding back).  Following this, the students told me what I did and what they observed happen.  They then had the same materials and replicated the experiment.  Afterwards, we talked about what we observed and wondered.  We brainstormed variables that we could change in a follow up experiment which I will get to next week (changing the liquid to Coke, changing the nails, using metal wire other than copper to name a few).  But again I struggled.  Should we be providing them with more information about how this is working first?  Should we do some “teaching” in between? Would their experiments be “deeper” with more information about how it is working or not?  I asked Erica and she asked me to be patient.  So I’m trusting that.  I know some of the experiments they have planned are going to fail.  However through this, they may learn more from that than any video, slideshow or article provided.

I think it’s important to do the Science first too.  Here is a picture of my husband and I having a successful try after about an hour of some problem solving.


One thing I know is that these students have been thinking like scientists. And that’s important. They observed, inferred, hypothesized and developed theories to test.  This is more important than knowing how a circuit or battery functions!

Then I started wondering about my coaching with teachers.  Are there times when I’m too ready with an answer?

When I teach with other teachers, we are often trying something new together, experimenting and taking a risk.  I was working with one new teacher this week that was not happy with the results that her students came up with in an inquiry research project that we had kicked off together.  Many students were not answering their guiding questions in detail or in some cases the answers were not connected to the questions they had come up with at all.  Perhaps this was a “fail”, but what came out of it was a deep discussion about feedback, mini-lessons and conferencing with students along the way.  We learned that her students needed extra work on reading non-fiction text and determining what was important information for answering their guiding question.  This is all stuff that I know, but may not have been as valuable to the teacher without this experience.  She has a lot of next steps that would not have come out if the project was “perfect”.  I know that her next inquiry will be more guided, giving student more supports in reading comprehension and inquiry skills along the way.

In a recent network with teachers in mathematics, I had SO much to say, but decided intentionally to hold myself back and focus on listening so that I could think about what the best next step might be for this team.  In my debrief with the principal later, we had a laugh (at my expense) about how hard it is for me to hold back – he knows me.  I’m that person in sessions that’s always got her hand up (it can be annoying!).  Sometimes saying one well timed thing has more impact.  He urged me to be patient, and that my “next step” could be addressed next time when we look at student results.

And he’s right.

This is just like the experiments.  I have to let teachers have some experience that will make what might be a next step more valuable than me swooping in with the answers that will help their students improve.  Perhaps even that day, instead of telling what I think the best next step is, I need to have faith that the teachers will come up with it on their own.  Perhaps instead I should be paraphrasing, questioning just like I did with the Grade 6 students. But really, the teachers need to come up with the variables in the classroom to play with.

I’m not saying all adult learning is just like student learning, but there are some similarities.  Just as we are learning to provide information differently from how we learned in the classroom, teacher learning also needs to be different.  How can we inspire and provoke that curiosity and desire to know in ourselves as teachers?

And so I’m curious… when do you struggle to hold back?  When shouldn’t you hold back?

I would love to keep the conversation going in the comments section below.

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