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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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Great post, Rebecca!
I use Costa's Levels of Questioning to help students have a frame from which to speak. They can then articulate questions from the different levels and even categorize the questions that been asked based on levels. My students follow up their discussions by even creating comprehension quizzes for other periods using these stems as a means to generate really rigorous inquiry. It's also a way for students to recognize that standardized test are generally Level 1 questions, as it is very difficult to develop multiple-choice in any other way.

The best way to prepare students to think critically is for teachers to also stay away from those Level 1 questions or, as you say, to stop answering those questions themselves.

In that way, we will teach them to think.

Thanks again for the great post!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Kristina Vance's picture

I wholeheartedly agree that many students are too focused on the absolute of being right all the time. In Math, my co-teacher and I introduce multiple paths to get the same answer--since when you are computing there really is a right and wrong /final/ answer. We'll share our own strategies, and encourage students to share with us and the class if they see another way to solve the problem. We tell them to use the method most effective for them, although we do try to point out the pitfalls of some approaches (i.e. you can save time if you...). Even when you think you have right and wrong answers, though, it's not always the case! Occassionally students will show that they've interpretted the directions differently. If they can make a sound case for how or why they got the answer they did, then they are given credit for it.

Our team feels it is valuable for them to see that the teacher can make mistakes too, and we encourage them to question what we say/do/write on the board if they feel we may have made an error. Some students have gotten into the habit of thinking, "If the teacher asks me to justify or elaborate on my answer, I must be wrong." When they come to us, they quickly learn that we may ask them to clarify /whether they are right or wrong/. We also invite classmates to comment on if they agree or disagree and why. This approach makes students think more deeply and make fewer guesses or assumptions. It also helps to sometimes turn a student question over to the class for an answer.

Mark P. Fazioli's picture

I also shudder when students ask if they have the "right" answer. The post and comments above are exactly the track we need to be on. No matter the age of the student, the best thing to do when teaching is to encourage thinking broadly. Otherwise, they could get into the rut of trying to get that magic answer--which is when learning can stop.

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