Why It Sometimes Looks Like Teaching Does Harm

  • 13 March, 2009

Blast from the Past: This blog originally posted March 13, 2009; and was reissued on November 29, 2017. Teachers often experience frustration when it looks like the kids are regressing as a result of teaching. This entry may be a healthy reminder as to what is actually going on. Keep teaching.      

  I was speaking with a teacher who was not a big fan of phonics instruction. It was not that she was totally against it, in fact, her concerns had arisen from observing the children who she was teaching phonics too. She was concerned because, often, when she introduced new skills, the kids seemed more awkward and more confused than when she started.

    Of course, it could be that she was just a bad teacher and was just doing a bad job of explaining and modeling the decoding skills. Bad teaching can certainly confuse more than it clarifies. However, she didn’t seem like a bad teacher—too smart, too serious, too caring for that to be likely.

  Maybe she was just a poor observer… but I doubt that was the case, as research has often found that new instruction can hurt performance—at least in the short run, and my own recent experiences with trying to learn ballroom dancing has been consistent with this, too.

I've worked hard to learn to dance and have been a real challenge to my teacher (she is often even more frustrated than me). She teaches some new step or styling and I struggle to get it. I go home and my wife helps me practice and we spend long hours mastering the new step. I eventually get it, and am thrilled when I go back to show Jelena, my teacher, what I’ve accomplished.

Her response is always the same: “Great. Now let’s try something new.” In other words, my reward for learning was to be taught something else. If I know how to do a basic step, she would add a turn… and I would struggle again… not just with the turn, but with the basic step that I already could do. The problem is that the new turn would overload my circuits. I could do the basic step, but not while I was anticipating the turn. Of course, as we would practice together initially, it tended to get worse—my brain would get more and more confused.

The introduction of a new skill can pull down the performance on other skills—temporarily. New information changes the context, and it can be hard to apply any new skill in a new context.

Neuroscience helps explain this odd short-term outcome of teaching. Think of pathways as the neural metaphor for learning. Learners, for instance, have to learn to think of a particular sound or pronunciation when they see a particular letter or combination of letters (or connecting a set of dance steps so that they take place in the right time and the right sequence). Initially, making those kinds of connections are haphazard. We may manage to make the connection, but it is slow and the paths that we take vary a bit. What's going on is lots of dendrites are firing so this association is a noisy and confusing event in the brain. However, as teaching guides you to make the connection more often, your brain starts trimming away that excess noise. What started out as a bunch of approximate paths ends up being a much quieter simple path (sort of how a path is worn into a lawn when someone cuts across too often). Good teaching makes sure that the path gets developed--and that the confusing brain signals don't become overwhelming.

To reduce the negative impact of new teaching, try teaching skills or information more thoroughly with applications in a lot of different contexts—including some in which cognitive overload or distraction will occur. Jelena would try to get me to dance with her, but then she would insist that we talk about me while we danced. What a distraction. But the point was that I wouldn't really know how to execute those steps if I had to think about them when I danced.

If kids seem overwhelmed by a lesson (e.g., you added some sight words to the practice deck and all of sudden, Henry is "forgetting" words that he seemed to know yesterday)--then just back off temporarily. Put it away and come back to it later. This rest essentially allows all those competing electric signals in the brain to quiet down. (That feeling that your head can't hold any more information, that it might explode at any minute, is just an overload of neurological electrical activity--an overload that the brain is struggling to sort out, struggling, that is, to find the right pathways.) 

Also, don’t allow the seeming temporary reduction in success to throw you or to throw your students: stay with it, and provide a lot of encouragement. I even learned to dance--eventually.

Teaching can appear to lower skills, but this seeming confusion is just a temporary state. It will get better over time.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Katie Garner Nov 30, 2017 11:37 PM

Great food for thought, particularly for teachers who tend to focus more on teaching the reading and not the reader (i.e. "But my kids can 'call' words much faster than they can 'read' them!"). There was another post you'd done recently on this very topic, which has actually come in quite handy, and was much appreciated!! :-)

Anna Hardway Dec 01, 2017 03:48 PM

Great example of how learning is not linear.

Lisa Dec 01, 2017 04:32 PM

This is so true, I have a student with severe dyslexia and I can immediately tell when her brain has had all it can handle. She came in yesterday after a tough math class and I had her read to me. I should have known better. She practically ran out when we were done.

????? ????? ??????? Jan 18, 2022 09:45 AM

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Why It Sometimes Looks Like Teaching Does Harm


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.