Filling the Void
The key is to scaffold struggle, not to fill the void. "Filling the void" is a term I use a lot with teachers. Filling the void is what we do when we perceive that something that needs to be done – often by somebody else – is not being done. We sense the void, and we feel anxious. So we jump right in and kill two birds with one stone: We do the job (thus demonstrating our competence) and we tamp down our anxiety.
And make way for resentment. But I’m sprinting way ahead.
Here’s how filling the void might sound:
Student: I don’t know how to do this.
Teacher: Sure you do! We just went over it.
Student: But I don’t get it. I do this…and then…this?
Teacher: I’ll show you.
Where is the void? (Actually, I perceive two possible voids here.)
Void #1: The student doesn’t know something.
Void #2: The student can’t do something.
These are very common voids, of course. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of them on the face of it. In fact, one might consider not knowing something and not being able to do something as valid steps along the path to mastery.
How does this teacher fill the voids?
Tactic #1: Deny the void’s existence
The teacher fills the void by insisting it’s not there. “No, you don’t not know. You do know.” This is not a great tactic because it totally overrides the student’s own reality. And students really need to have their own realities validated.
Tactic #2: Do it yourself
Showing students how to do things is a perfectly legitimate way to teach. Watch out, though: If you’re doing something to fill a void, you may be helping yourself more than the student.
The reason I say this is that, if voids make you anxious – because somewhere way back in your history you learned that competence is better than incompetence or merging is better than separation or (perhaps more recently) your student’s performance is a marker of your own value -- then filling the void might be a knee-jerk reaction to your anxiety.
It may be that what your student needs more than anything is to feel that void himself. Feeling the void, especially with a teacher who is comfortable with void-induced anxiety, might spur your student to actually start struggling.
Which is what students need to become comfortable with. Struggling. While being “held” (more about this another time) by a curious and confident teacher.
In short, when students don't know something or can't do something, they might be exactly where they need to be: poised on the edge of struggle. Allowing students to struggle their way from not-knowing to knowing, from incompetence to competence, is not only ultimately gratifying (for student and teacher) but is, in fact, an acceptable definition of teaching-and-learning.
What voids do you fill?