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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Teaching the Right Answers Is the Wrong Direction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

"Is this right?" Admittedly, I flinch a little when I hear these words from a student. Why? They always serve as a reminder of the wrong turn education has taken. (Or maybe it's always been like this.) It's not their fault, but students are all too often on a quest for the Correct Answers, which has little to do with critical-thinking development, I'm afraid.

Our schools are about competition, merits, awards, and how to earn the Golden Ticket -- giving the right answers. And this focus often starts as early as kindergarten. We teachers want to support all answers, all the "best thinking" of all children, but we give ourselves away when we nod, glow, and beam when a student says exactly what we want her to say. We even hint at that perfect response. But is she really learning? (Can you picture this happening in your classroom? Guilty as charged over here.)

According to this article from Scientific American, studies show that getting answers wrong actually helps students learn.

So, how do we break those know-it-all routines?

Become an Explorer with Students

Step off the soapbox, tone down that direct teaching, and become wondrous and inquisitive right along side your students. Take a break from what you are expert at and delve into unknown territory with new content, activities, or a concept. Here are ways to get started:

  • Begin and end a lesson, unit, or project with an essential question or two. These are overarching questions that do not have a definitive answer -- for example, "How am I connected to those in the past?" Essential questions are also open ended, highly subjective, and often provocative. (Read education researcher Grant Wiggins's descriptions and examples of essential questions.)
  • Take every opportunity to express to your students that you have no idea about an answer, even if you have to fake it a little. (Teaching is part theater, after all). Show them that you are equally puzzled. Model inquiry by using the think-aloud strategy as you do a class reading of a current science article, or a poem, or as you collectively admire a painting from the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Dwindle down those teacher sentences that start with "This means" and replace them with, "I wonder," "What if," and "How might?" And, most importantly, begin asking your students this crucial question often, even multiple times in a day: "What do you think?" (For more on framing open-ended questions and exploratory classroom language, try this book.)
  • Give students plenty of think time. When you stop rushing, students may seem a bit shocked and may even believe it to be some sort of trick or hidden tactic. Wait, push that Pause button, and count the seconds -- whatever it takes. Can you say "uncomfortable"? Students are not accustomed to this exaggerated amount of time, but studies show that giving students an added handful of seconds after a question can reap much richer responses.
  • Be mindful of your tone. Try replacing a flat, authoritative, expert-sounding one with -- and this might sound corny -- a singsong intonation, the one we use when we are whimsically curious.
  • Make your classroom a place of wonderment. When a student asks a question that provokes a discussion, elicits a slew of fiery rebuttals, or brings about even more questions, give her a sticky note to write the question and her name on and put it on display, maybe on the "Questions That Rock" wall.

(All of the above suggestions are also sure to help lower the affective filter of the struggling students in your classroom.)

A Constructivist Classroom

For those out there already forming a response to this post about the woes of constructivist teaching methods, I'd like to point out a few things:

Teachers are known control freaks. We have to be. Anyone who is not a teacher out there, try to summon the attention of 32 seventh graders the day after Halloween and loads of candy, or teach a lesson on how to properly format a bibliography page to a group of students two weeks before high school graduation. What I'm proposing is that you channel all that controlling energy and put it at the beginning and end of a lesson.

This means that you do indeed have goals and objectives solidified in your mind and in your lesson-planning books. With clear objectives (the beginning) and enriching, rigorous assessments (the end) decided on and designed, constructivism just proposes you do something different in the middle.

You know the saying "The devil is in the details"? Well, the devil is also in the misunderstood. This method of teaching sometimes gets a bad rap because learning objectives and assessments are flimsy, or even missing.

How about it? Step down, stand next to students, and take a journey. You are still leading the pack, just relaxing your grip.

Down with Drill and Kill

You will start to see students slowly -- often painfully so, at first -- begin to become questioners and openly, vulnerably curious. The almost robotic, knee-jerk quest for the correct answers will begin to vaporize from your classroom.

And, students will see questioning out loud as not so much an admittance of not having the right answers as a declaration that they are admirably curious -- a learner, full of ideas, hypotheses, and reflections. They will begin to see that they -- just like their teacher -- are explorers of knowledge and ideas.

What are some ways you've inspired students to speak their minds and question freely in your classroom? We look forward to your comments!

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (33)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Aliscia Krecisz's picture

We need to teach kids how to think! It's what is going to keep them on the path of learning. we are preparing kids for a world of unknown, a world where the magic answer is learning how to think and problem solve. Kids cannot do that if we are peering over the shoulders of their work and telling them how, when, how much and trying to fill their minds with stuff. It does not mean we don't provide clear objective or structure, we most certainly do! It does mean we step back, we quiet ourselves, we observe, we model our thinking, we create a place where children can risk take, fail but from that stand up and say here is what I learned, here's how I might try again.
I teach Kindergarten and it is amazing to see how their brains work! They spent the last four, five, or six years of there life figuring out the world, language, and they did it buy exploring different ways. Educators need to create places where children of all ages can do that type of exploring and learning.

Neira Zolota's picture
Neira Zolota
Elementary school science teacher from San Diego

I am an elementary school Science teacher (1st-6th grades). One thing that I do is ask 'challenge questions' every week, where students use what they know to figure out a question. For example, we do a demonstration with a plastic bottle and balloon to illustrate that warm air rises. I then ask why there are no deserts in the mountains. This is just one example, but it's extremely important to teach our students to be abstract thinkers, and this is true in every subject but especially in Science. It took my students some time to adjust to this teaching method, but the results are wonderful.

Lauri83's picture

I always try to ask open ended questions in class and have students write in their journals every day whether given a writing prompt or free thinking. Children do need to become abstract thinkers, I agree. Teachers need to be a guide sometimes, rather than just a teacher of content and material. I try to teach students to think and not just what to think. I love to use cooperative learning in my classroom, so the children can learn from each other rather than the teacher all the time.

Emily Brown's picture
Emily Brown
11th grade English teacher from Strasburg, VA

Rebecca, I really enjoyed your post. I am an 11th grade English teacher in Virginia, so students in my class have to take The End of Course Virginia Standards of Learning Test, and much more than everyone likes to admit, a lot of weight is put on these students' scores. They also reflect on me, for the good or bad. There is this pressure to teach to the test; just give them the information a skills they will need and let them pass this minimum competency test, but that's not for me. My students often complain because I teach "what isn't on the test." Getting an education is not about learning how to regurgitate information; it's about learning how to critically process information to be a highly functioning member of society, and that to me is much more important than any one test score.

Carrie's picture

I instill in my students that learning is an on going process; how we gain knowledge is from our mistakes. In my classroom if a student provides an incorrect answer it is viewed upon as an opportunity to learn. After adjusting to my classroom environment (which takes time) students who normally would be afraid to participate begin to.

I agree with Lauri83 in that we need to provide additional outlets that permit students to expand their thinking and ways in which they learn, cooperative-learning groups is a valuable tool. I have also incorporating the "think aloud strategy" Rebecca discusses. This technique works beautifully by demonstrating to students that I do not have all the answers and together we will attain them. In doing this my students productivity increases at the thought of assisting their teacher.

Thank you Rebecca for your wonderful post and insightful information.

Krishona McCoy's picture

I agree that simply teaching the right answer is not the best way. I think of the saying, "If you give a man a fish, he can eat that one day, but if you teach him how to fish, he can eat forever". This is what comes to mind when I think about a teacher simply teaching the right answer. When we teach reading at my school, for the K-2 kids, we give them the strategies. We can't tell them the words, we must give them the tools they will need to get the job done "tomorrow", not just for the moment. We teach them something today that will help them read better tomorrow or that will help them problem solve a similiar problem like this tomorrow, instead of just teaching them the answer. That too comes to mind when I think about this issue. We want students to be independent and go beyond the "basic" so we must teach them what they need to be able to be successful and think outside of the box.

Elissar Gerges's picture
Elissar Gerges
High School biology teacher from Abu Dhabi, UAE

I really enjoyed reading the post. I also encouraged my peers to access the blog to have an insight about the right way of teaching the "right answer". I teach IB and AP biology classes and these are 2-year programs that require an external examination by the end of the second year. Unfortunately, the school, parents, teachers, and students are obsessed with these tests because universities consider the results of these examinations. Teachers tend to use sample questions from past papers so that students can have an idea about the style of questioning. However, this leaves no room for activities or any information beyond what is required in the syllabus. That's why students are obsessed with the "right answer" and are always asking the teacher about the "right answer" in the mark scheme provided with the past paper. Teachers even dictate the answers to the students in class or photocopy and distribute the mark scheme to the students.
I can totally understand that students have to be familiar with the questions and the format of the external examination; but this does not mean that students should passively receive ready-made answers.
I try my best not to use this strategy in my biology class. We have electronic boards installed in the classroom which allows me to prepare power points for the students. These presentations have animations, images, and a lot of questions included within the image on each slide. These images allow students to relate to the topic in a concrete way and make room for thinking outside the box.
Usually the lesson is followed by a worksheet that is directed towards pointing out misconceptions. The worksheet includes different levels of questioning that cover Bloom's taxonomy. I give students enough wait time I and then I direct the questions and give wait time II after re-stating my question.
My aim is to make students learn what is beyond the book. I even play the devil's advocate when I notice that the student's answer reflects a misconception or a detail misunderstood. Questioning allows the students to relate different topics to each other. My students were taught in a way where they study every topic by itself and usually fail at connecting ideas together; which is a big flaw in biology where the teacher cannot discuss a topic without relating it to prior knowledge or to topics discussed earlier throughout the year.
I also tend to give my students data analysis questions that include graphs, charts, and different types of data where the student answers the questions based on what is given in the questions, without him referring to prior knowledge. Such exercises are challenging for the students because they are used to studying and writing the "right answer". Such exercises include open-ended questions where more than one answer is valid.

I really enjoyed reading the post Rebecca. This is the first time I participate in a blog and I find it very enlightening to see that teachers share common interests about their students regardless of the grade level we teach. I loved reading the different comments and I will actually use most of the ideas posted in your article as well as in the other teacher's comments in my classroom in order to improve it and make it a better place for learning and for asking questions.

LaurenH's picture

Rebecca, I really enjoyed reading your post! Teaching students how to think critically and discover the answers themselves is something I think teachers should try to integrate into their lessons everyday. It is such an important life skill for them to have. I sometimes notice myself giving an answer and then regretting it as soon as I said it because I wished I had let a conversation begin among the students so they could figure it out for themselves. Sometimes I get so focused on getting the content/standards taught that I forget about what is really important...teaching students how to discover and think for themselves. That is what will have an impact and will help them to be successful later in their lives.

I love your ideas for how to become an explorer with your students. Some I try to do already and others I have heard about, but have never tried. I hope to incorporate the use of Essential Questions and other forms of questioning in my classroom. I have wanted to implement a more investigative approach in my classroom, so I'm excited to try the ideas you included in your post. Thank you for sharing!

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

It's been great reading all your responses to my post. It's fantastic hearing about the various strategies you all are using to guide students to think for themselves. This is what learning -- and teaching -- is all about!

Thanks for all that you do in your classrooms,

Rebecca Alber

Teta's picture

After reading the post, I had many connections to the use of inquiry and design cycle of engineering. The school that I teach at is science, technology, engineering, and math based that has more ups and than downs. Students feel so compelled to have the right answer all the time with math and do not understand that it's the process to get an answer that is more important. By understanding the design process that an engineer takes, students are able to brainstorm and problem solve through all facets of education and life. My 5th graders have been introduced to this process in a program called Project Lead the Way. Since my students started implementing the design process from the beginning of the year, they have improved their thinking on all intelligences. Thinking "outside of the box" is slowly becoming second nature, and I, too, have started using the idea of the design process to create more engaging and thinking lessons even in content areas.

I personally believe that the constructivist view of teaching really could allow students to reach more though provoking heights. If we can use an idea like the engineering design process, it will not only develop students into better thinkers but have them ready for an explosive field in the future!

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