January 24, 2017

“See, this is a corner,” I say slowly, poking my finger against the point of the puzzle piece. “There are only four corners in this puzzle, so there are only four places th-”

“Here?” she interrupts, trying to shove the piece in, “Here?” she continues, trying another spot haphazardly.

“Well, look at the colors-”

“Here?” she says, sticking it on a non-corner spot.

Ugh. Okay, new strategy.

“Well, look there’s also a border. This line right here,” I pull her finger along the bright blue line, “This is a border. So turn the piece so the lines connect on the outside.”

I know I’m losing her, even as I’m trying to make it tactile for her.


I always felt like I was always throwing too many strategies at her, which goes against my “teach one thing at a time” mantra. Use the border as a hint… the edges, the corners, the picture itself… or common sense. Or anything. But nothing was sticking. It was hard to teach just one skill at a time with the puzzles, but clearly it wasn’t working to overwhelm her with all of the necessary strategies, either. Wasn’t there some stuff she should intuitively figure out on her own? Like how the head wouldn’t be upside down, and the piece with water should be touching the other pieces with water?

But it all seemed lost on her, so I’d put it away and wait a few weeks before trying again.

It wasn’t for lack of interest or enthusiasm. She is almost always game to try the activities I set before her, and usually for good reason. We have fun, she learns, and she sees her own progress. I’ll be honest, though, I was worried for a while that she lacked the skills necessary to complete a puzzle. Turns out all we were missing was some good ‘ol solitary time for her to hunker down and focus on the puzzle all by herself.

I had a feeling this was the key all along. Every time we tried puzzles together, I kept thinking it would be the perfect blanket time activity- something that she’d just stare at and tinker away with and eventually figure out on her own. Not only would she figure out the puzzle, but also the strategies needed to complete one. Like many things, I felt like those weren’t things that needed to be taught- they were best learned through exploration and trial-and-error. But we had long sinced stopped blanket time, so I didn’t have a good time set apart for her to kind of be forced to just sit with and persevere with a task like that on her own.

Then, earlier this week, I saw my friend’s Instagram post, where her two year old was finishing 48-piece puzzles by himself. WHAT?! I was completely impressed, and then also certain that if he could do a 48-piece puzzles, surely my girl could figure out a gigantic 8-piece puzzle on her own.

So that night, I pulled out a box of puzzles and let her have at it. We had recently extended her bedtime, allowing her to stay up with us an hour later every night. Since we were not willing to give up our sacred mommy-and-daddy-veg-time, we instead allowed her to join us in the office for “office time” each night. She’d sit at her little table doing quiet table activities while we clicked away on our computers. I soon realized this was pretty much “blanket time,” but at a table instead of the floor.

It was the perfect time for puzzles.

Since she knew she was supposed to do things on her own, she quietly tinkered away with the pieces without asking for help and in a matter of minutes, had completed the 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-piece puzzles on her own! YES. IT WAS WORKING. We celebrated and then brought out the 12-piece puzzles. A few quiet minutes later, she whisper-shouted, “MAMA, PAPA, LOOK!!!!!” She had a brilliant smile on her face and we were ecstatic. She had figured them out- corners, borders, colors and everything- all on her own.

I laughed internally as the truth hit me: She just needed me to get out of her way.

All my coaching and helping and hovering was totally doing her a disservice. When I made it clear that she was on her own, she was forced to try and tinker and persevere and in hardly any time at all, she picked up so many skills that I had tried in vain to teach her.

I am a firm believer in play-based learning, and feel that kids are so capable of picking up strategies and skills just by playing around with things, tinkering, and engaging with items on their own. However, it really takes an intentional effort for me to give my kids that space. Sometimes I have to really force myself to not offer direct instruction, tips, or even an encouraging presence in order for her to have that space to learn to learn on her own.

I’m learning that sometimes, one of the best ways to teach is to not teach at all!

…Puzzling, isn’t it? 😀

2 responses to “Teach by Not Teaching”

  1. Joellen, this is such a profound insight. How much energy and “instructional time” are parents and teachers wasting with teaching? We could be doing so much more to elicit and create space for learning.

    I’m really stuck on the tension between what teachers should be doing more and doing less. In my opinion, we could use more mindfulness, executive function practice, focus on expanding character strengths, and leading a discussion on the process of learning and building community. I’m a big fan of the movement where teachers take the radical step to share control of the classroom with their students. If this is new to you, I can share books/references if you want.

    • joellen says:

      Hi, and thanks so much for leaving your kind comment! In my teaching training program, we read a lot about sharing control of the classroom with the students. I have to admit that as much as I am a fan of it in theory, I wasn’t as extreme with it as the cases I’d read and studied about. I incorporated as much as I could, maybe just a little beyond my comfort zone sometimes, but I wouldn’t say my classroom would have been exemplary to learn from in that specific area. I’d be happy to have the books/references listed here in case I go back and have time to read more about it! Thank you!