Lazy Teaching: An Example

Paul Romani

Should Lazy Teaching be Tolerated?!

As part of Pear Tree’s ESL classes, we offer homework help to our students to help them understand questions and ideas, and to prepare for an important test.
Here’s an example of some homework that one of our students was set by his grade 6 teacher. For me, this is a good example of lazy teaching.
After, I’ll present a much better way of teaching the same student.


One of our student’s homework questions from BC Science Probe 6 (shown in the page below) is as follows:
“1. How would you explain a classification key to someone? Write three or four sentences that explain what a classification key is, how is it used, and when it would be a useful tool.”
On the page, Figure 2 shows an example of a classification key.
However, look at this example. Could you answer the homework question using this example?
Everything about this page is wrong. Here’s why:

  1. The diagram label ‘A classification key’ is in tiny writing.
  2. There are no column headings.

On first glance, the student is supposed to know what this diagram is and what each column contains.
I don’t know about you, but in everyday (business) life, it makes sense to present information as clearly as possible. We don’t get customers or sales by being lazy and not bothering to label information clearly.
Why doesn’t this diagram have labels? Because the writers didn’t think it was necessary, or rather, they simply didn’t think.
However, the teacher is the ultimate person responsible for knowing the clarity of information given to students. The teacher should know that any student – especially an ESL student – is going to find it almost impossible to answer this homework question using this kind of useless diagram.
Any teacher that uses a book like this (i.e. BC Science Probe) demonstrates a complete and shocking lack of thought or consideration for their students! Such a teacher would never be employed at Pear Tree.

BC Science Probe 6 page

BC Science Probe 6 example



Let’s look at the same homework question presented in a way that shows an appreciation for the student and for learning:
Firstly, let’s reword and reformat the question:
“1. How would you teach someone what a classification key is? Use the following example to help you. In your answer, explain:

  1. What a classification key is,
  2. How it is used,
  3. When it is useful.”


Classification Key

Classification Key: http://bio1100.nicerweb.com/Locked/media/lab/classify/pets.gif

This different example is also a classification key, but is so much easier to understand than the one in the Science Probe 6 book.
Using this example, you can easily identify different aspects of the classification key.
As I’ve noted below, there are different characteristics and there are a series of yes/no questions. This version is presented more like a flow chart.
Good teaching example

Good teaching example

So, using this second diagram, it would certainly be possible for a (native speaking) student to come up with the following explanation of what a classification key is:
“A classification key is a series of yes/no questions used to identify the presence or absence of a variety of different characteristics. This is useful for grouping things together based on their similarities. In the example above, the first question asks if the creature has fins. If it does, we know that it is some kind of fish. From there, we could ask other questions about expected characteristics of a fish in order to group or distinguish different types of fish.”
For an ESL student, I would expect a much simpler answer, such as the following:
“A classification key uses questions (yes/no) about characteristics to group similar things. This helps us to be specific (or more precise) when we talk about something.”


As someone that doesn’t believe in studying subjects in isolation (i.e. I believe in integrated subjects), I would take this idea much further.
I would talk about the merits of classifying things. After all, classifying isn’t empirical. It is subjective.
For example, why do we have a handful of words for snow, but eskimos have many? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskimo_words_for_snow)
Often, classifying is politically motivated, as in the case of ‘race’. The idea of classifying groups of people based on ‘race’ has been debunked. Now, people try to classify people based on ethnicity, which is still a subjective notion.
You may think that a grade 6 student won’t understand or be able to talk about such matters. But, they’re supposed to understand the contents of B.C. Science Probe 6?!
What about other terms related to classification, such as labelling?
It’s natural to talk about the merits of classifying and labelling things, because it affects each and every one of us. Students are much more likely to be interested in classification in this way, rather than talking about classifying birds and fish!
Also, there is quite a lot of vocabulary that arises:

  • Classification: Taxonomy, Grouping, Organizing, Categorizing, Labelling, Systematizing
  • Characteristics: Aspects, Features, Qualities



Lazy teaching is unacceptable.
I’m shocked that an ESL student in Vancouver has been given this book (which I think is an awful book) and this homework assignment.
Good teachers put themselves into their students’ shoes and think “Would I understand this picture/diagram/question/idea? What is the point of this question?”
In other words, good teaching is about empathy.
It’s also about giving students the tools to teach themselves. It’s about empowering them, and in doing so, making them passionate about learning. In this case, the student can use this diagram and work backwards (i.e. working backwards problem solving) to figure out what a classification key is. Only if the student can explain what it is do they truly understand it.
Giving your student a vague, poorly labelled diagram doesn’t teach them anything, other than that you don’t care about them.