Morsels of Inspired Instruction – "Let me" vs "May I?"
(A tasty morsel of ideas in line with Yay Math’s debut published book, on the art of inspired and effective individualized instruction, coming in January 2016.)
Any given educational exchange entails an exploration into power. Power, as in, is the teacher “in control” as the “authority” within the exchange? Yes, I used air-quotes to connote that what we traditionally know about power dynamics in the classroom is only somewhat correct. Master instructors improve upon this dynamic, and many times, turn that dynamic on its head. If you wish to positively leverage the concept of power within your educational (or parenting) practice, read on.
Let’s begin with what we know. The teacher is responsible for the educational programming. They outline the curriculum, create goals, and set the learning on its course. Therein already lies a huge chunk of power. Add to that the mastery over content, which the students lack and desire, and the power dynamic is massively lopsided towards the teacher. Notice, I didn’t say lopsided “in favor” of the teacher, for with that power comes the obligation of using it correctly, and better yet, ceding it back to students.
Let’s explore the difference between two seemingly similar, yet ultimately different offers:
“Let me show you how.”
“May I show you how?”
The first implies that the teacher is in control. The second implies that the student is in control. Such a critical difference – because in effect, the teacher is handing back the authority that s/he supposedly had. I have seen firsthand, both in my classrooms, and working on a One-on-One level, the look of surprise when students hear me ask, “may I show you?” It re-aligns the lopsided power structure to more natural, human levels, which oftentimes students are not accustomed to when learning.
Think to yourself if you’ve had (or personally know) a teacher whose ego is center-stage within the learning space. It is a downright abhorrent spectacle. We, as fellow students, have already bestowed upon this person the keys to our brains, and by extension, to our hearts. Learning is entirely an act of vulnerability; it exposes us to the very person we entrust to deliver said learning. For teachers to wield a blow torch on us while we’re prone is a massive violation.
If all else is going well, chances are that saying “let me show you how” would not create a second thought among many students. But, see what asking permission does to the learners. Tune in to any surge of empowerment they may receive. Feel the uptick of their energy, in having just received the say-so to let you say what’s so. And finally, check in with how you feel after having asked. Does it make you uncomfortable? If so, that would be understandable. Remember though, education is at its core a service position. If that service role resonates for you, then asking them “may I show you?” will carry through to your students with strength. They will respect the confidence it takes to relinquish power back to them, and when used alongside several other morsels of inspired education I will share, they will come to revere you as their trusted teacher.