When to Resist the Urge to Teach


Five-year-old Hannah was looking closely at a daisy growing on the edge of the playground. When I walked over to her, she remarked, “Flower petals are like fingers.”

“Well, not really,” I pointed out. “Fingers can pull and hold things, and petals can’t.”  The conversation stopped there, and I wondered later – had Hannah’s thinking stopped there, too?

Maybe she truly wanted to know if petals were exactly like fingers. But it’s more likely that Hannah simply wished to share an interesting observation. All I really needed to say was something like, “Yes, they do look a bit like fingers,” or just, “Mmmm.” Then she might have gone on to make more interesting observations; or continued our conversation about flowers and how they resemble people in some ways; or kept exploring the similarities and differences between flower petals and fingers on her own. In any of these scenarios, Hannah would have been encouraged to use her own curiosity and creative thinking.

After I’d thought about this encounter for a while, I decided I would try to hold back from assuming that every child who talked to me needed me to teach them something. I would be patient, observant, tuned in to what each child really needed from me in that moment.

Ah, but if it were only that easy! Like most teachers, I love to share information, I love to show people how to do things, I love to explain and instruct. It’s in my nature, and it’s also what I’ve been educated and trained for. So I still slip and provide unasked-for information more than I’d like to admit. But when I can resist that urge to teach, and just let children think and imagine for themselves, they can follow their own trains of thought and make their own connections and discoveries.

For example, a few weeks ago a boy named Reggie told me he wanted to be a bird when he grew up. All I said was, “A bird?” “Yeah!” he told me, “Then I could fly all over the place and it’d be cool! I’d go all around the whole world whenever I wanted and say hi to everybody!” Then he informed me, “You can’t really turn into a bird though.”

If I had volunteered that fact at the beginning, it might have been the end of Reggie’s imaginative story.

Sometimes not teaching is a better way to help children learn – and to use their own curiosity and creativity.

When a child makes an interesting but inaccurate observation, resist the urge to
teach – wait to see where their thoughts are leading.

Practice mentally counting to three, saying “Mmmm,” or repeating a key word or two back to the child, to encourage them to continue their train of thought.

If a child asks you for information, by all means share it, but be sensitive to when a child may simply be observing, wishing,  imagining, or making a joke. They may need a listener more than a teacher at that moment.

This piece is adapted from my book “Teaching Creativity” (Whitmore Books, 2010), available on Amazon and other sites.


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