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In some cultures, there is an expression of "spoon feeding" type of instruction, where the teacher shows how to do steps to a problem, and then students are assigned minor variants thereof. There is little to no critical thinking. (One could debate what exactly constitutes spoon feeding and that all instruction has varying levels of spoon feeding, but that is not my question). My question is, is the usage of the term inappropriate, offensive? Infantilizing? Insensitive to people with disabilities (I am actually recently disabled myself so am increasingly aware of the issue)? What could be some replacement language?

"Spoon feeding only teaches you the shape of the spoon" is a quote my 80 year old father told me he was taught in school, but times have changed (for the better I will say) of what constitutes acceptable discourse. Based on an online search it seems the quote is due to E.M. Forster: “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.”

For context, this is about helping students make the jump from calculus and below-type books to upper level courses (not just proofs, but that is typical setting) where the book does not necessarily show you how to do problems on the homework, but students have to think, understand definitions. A search of the term on this site reveals several questions using the terminology.

Not sure if math educators is an appropriate site for this question, or I should try another stack exchange site (academia? suggestion welcome)

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    $\begingroup$ I have difficulties to understand why the notion "spoon feeding" would be "offensive" or "insensitive to people with disabilities". The notion is a metaphor, just as the sentence "Glueck's lecture was again extraordinarily boring today, I almost fell asleep" is a metaphor (well, in most cases at least). Would you consider the latter sentence offensive, or insensitive to people with sleeping disorder? $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2022 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ If there is no critical thinking involved, and the students are just applying the same patterns over and over again, it's simply "rote learning". $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2022 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ How about, "baby birding it" $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2022 at 22:03

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No one can make any universal guarantees as to whether or not any particular student may find your usage of spoon-feeding or any other term offensive or insensitive. However, spoon-feeding as a metaphorical descriptor is meant to infantilize (the idiom is definitely associated with feeding an incapable baby with a spoon at minimum), criticize certain teaching methods, and even possibly challenge student proficiency (which could motivate some students and demoralize others). This is not to say that those who use the term spoon-feeding should stop but only to describe the rhetorical effect your words might have on the audience.

So... what's the goal here? If you are trying to find a one-time method to contrast the high standards of your course (and others in the future) with other courses as non-controversially as possible, then one approach would be to criticize the other courses objectively and focus on either objective aspects of your course or paint your goals in a more aspirational light. An example might be: "In prior courses, you may have been presented with theory and walked through a significant number of problems which closely mirrored future problems on assignments and assessments, but in this course, you will be held to a higher standard: to independently apply the theory we develop to problems and proofs of your own."

If the goal is to find a pithy replacement that you intend to use repeatedly which still conveys the critical connotation, you could say something like "I'm not going to baby you", which at least has the advantage of very directly indicating that you are comparing the alternative approach to how one would treat a baby.

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A term for the same or similar that has positive connotations is 'scaffolding'.

I want my students to understand the connection between a function's graph and the graph of its derivative, so I scaffold it, helping them see each step in my thought process. (Scaffolding usually refers to asking easier questions first to help students climb up to the harder stuff.)

To help students make that shift from lower-level to upper-level textbooks, I ask them in the higher-level courses I teach (Linear Algebra and Discrete Math) to take notes on the textbook. I also give them an article by Shai Simonson and Fernando Gouvea on how to read a math book. I also talk repeatedly about the roles of definitions and theorems.

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    $\begingroup$ To my non-native ears, scaffolding includes giving structure, reminding a student/pupil to check definitions/what something means, remind them to maybe draw a picture, etc., whereas the spoon feeding as describes sounds more like teaching an algorithm and then drilling it via variations of the same exercises. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Sep 13, 2022 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you. And yet, they are similar. Finding ways to make this easier for students. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Sep 13, 2022 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ As a non-educator, I'd advise you not to use the term scaffolding with parents. If you do, expect blank faces. Consider having a good lay-person explanation ready if you do use it. Scaffolding has meaning in the real world (temporary construction structure) and even has a meaning in computer science. I've never heard it used in this context. $\endgroup$
    – Flydog57
    Sep 13, 2022 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ It is used often when discussing how to teach math. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Sep 13, 2022 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Flydog57 It is completely normal jargon in maths education; for example en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instructional_scaffolding $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Sep 14, 2022 at 15:14
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You might consider the phrase "algorithmic learning" vs. "deep understanding". Those who learn algorithmically, often memorize steps with no understanding of them and then can't apply them in exceptional cases. Other students understand why they are doing what they are doing and can adjust it according to the needs of any problem.

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Education tends to use loaded terms rather than thoughtful arguments. "Drill and kill" must be bad, right? "Mastery" must be good, right?

For spoon feeding, in particular, I've seen the term used a lot for graduate courses, in the "we're not spoon feeding", but it really struck me as a justification for the low level of effort by the college (profs more interested in research), rather than a reasoned decision to challenge the students.

I'm not so concerned with the impact on the students of the term. I just don't like the ed research fad-driven use of loaded emotional terms.

As far as your specific issue, I kind of doubt that "lack of Spivak" is preventing kids from making the move to proof based clasess in LA, RA, and AA. The kind of kid who can handle a very tough calc book like that as his first exposure is the kind of kid who can make the jump later, also, without the prior Spivak exposure, and probably doesn't even need a "proof class".

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    $\begingroup$ "Drill and skill" must be good. :) $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    Sep 13, 2022 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ So how would you describe the difference in the type of work expected between an introductory calculus class (not proof based) and a proof based class... e.g. "find the derivative of x^3+2x^2+3" vs "show that n^2 >= 2n for all n >= 2 in Z". $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2022 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ User30..., I think you have a nice example. And I agree that there's a difference in cognitive load. And I'm not in the "how to describe" business. My point in the last para is that I don't believe it is the "lack of head scratchers in conventional calc" that makes it hard to move to proof-based classes, but the intrinsic difficulty along with the intrinsic limitations of mediocre students. In fact, making it harder earlier might even be counterproductive (for weak students) since it is less gradual of a training process. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Sep 13, 2022 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ IOW, whether one calls it a conventional calc class (medium and my preference) or a mechanical spoon fed atrocity (bad bad) or scaffolded, progressive lovey-dove (good good) is just the LABEL. The actual ISSUE to decide is if we should teach a bunch of RA in a first calc course or not. And for that, arguments can be made either way. But just labeling the class with a loaded term is not a good way to analyzed the pros and cons. Instead you should make some argument that the kids can handle more (pro Spivak) or that they can't (anti Spivak), etc. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Sep 13, 2022 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ Important also to consider the impact on all students, not just superstars, including those who have not yet selected majors. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Sep 13, 2022 at 20:20

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