Just Give Me The Answer

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Just give me the answer!

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A while ago I saw an exchange on a programming forum I visit on occasion. A poster had asked a question that at first sight (and in all honesty, subsequent examination) appeared pretty simple. The poster claimed to have tried everything they could think of, that nothing worked, and they'd appreciate any help.

The first couple of replies offered hints, and asked to see their attempts. Then someone posted a complete, clear and correct solution. Of course, we never heard from the original poster (OP) again.

Others asked why a solution has been given - it was clearly homework, why just give the answer? What could the OP possibly learn except the answer to this one question? How does that really help?

Anyone who has any familiarity with the internet newsgroups and other forums will recognise this. Anyone who has taught will recognise this. "Just give me the answer!" is the cry. The question is seen as something that needs an answer, and the answer is all that matters.

We decry the youth of today for this attitude. "It's clearly," people say "a product of the internet, gaming and television generation. The quick fix, the quick answer, the immediate gratification."

Occasionally I would, unthinkingly, say the same thing.

More recently I was asked for some help with a computer question. I called up the man page, checked with Google, found the answer, and started to explain.

"Just tell me how to do it." was the reply.

I prefer this version:
  • "Give a man a fire and he's warm for a day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life."
-- Terry Pratchett, Jingo
There's the old saying: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life." But it's not the teaching to fish that's the problem. I know plenty of people who are willing, eager, even, to teach people how to fish (figuratively speaking).

The problem is that people don't want to learn to fish. Fishing is hard, fishing is boring, fishing is work, dammit. People just want to be given fish.

How do we change this? How do we give people a love of learning, exploring, finding things out for themselves? How to we create that hunger not for answers, but for the process of problem solving?

There's a lot of research floating around now about using games to convey knowledge and skills. Specially desiged games now teach fractions and equations, and the kids seem to do better on the tests. The problem is, we still haven't taught them to fish.

We need to foster the dogged persistence. We need to nurture the willingness to experiment, to be wrong, to try different approaches, and to explore the problem without immediate reward.

Research shows that the best predictor of future success is the willingness to sacrifice immediate satisfaction for the potential of greater future rewards. We need to teach the pleasure to be found in the chase, and not just in the kill.

But we can't, because it can't be assessed, measured, weighed, or assigned a number. That's why the real education of things that really matter won't happen in schools.

Which is a shame.

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