Who Benefits From the Demo?

I will never be the strongest woman in the room. I don’t mean that in any kind of cognitive or social-emotional way. I mean that I am physically not a very strong person. Nevertheless, I work out as often as I can and I have spent most of my life in physical therapy.

A few years ago I had a physical therapist that I really liked. However, she had a strange way of teaching me new exercises. She would model the exercise that she wanted me to do. That doesn’t seem so strange by itself, but she never had me try the exercise out for myself. She did not help get me started, or watch me as I tried what she had modeled, or adjust my positioning. I wanted her to explain the exercise to me as I was trying it and help me understand what I could do to get the most benefit. After I left her office, I would go home to try the exercises on my own, never knowing if my positioning was correct or not.

It made me wonder how often we teach math like that. We explain and model problems for the students. We demonstrate our skill and the ease at which we can complete a task. We may even make it look pretty simple. But who benefits from the demo? Is it the students? Or is it the teacher? Maybe nobody.

Constructivists believe that each of us create our own knowledge from our experiences. We are active participants in the process. We cannot watch someone else learn for us. We need to try it out, succeed or fail, and adjust accordingly.

The thing that my physical therapist did extremely well was understand my physical abilities and limitations and design exercises that were appropriate for me and would increase my physical ability. That makes sense. Can we do that for our students? Do we?

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