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When Teaching the Right Answers Is the Wrong Direction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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"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!

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Charles S. Baldacchino's picture

(Put your seatbelts on for this one, folks.)

We need to change the whole paradigm. We should be collecting "best practices" from our best teachers: proven educational ideas, approaches to teaching/learning, and human interaction. We should also be collecting "best practices" from our best leaders outside education, from our best managers outside education, from our best artisans outside education, from our best ethicists outside education, of the sensitivity and personal impact of our parents and grandparents, ... and then create a single "super"-teacher -- an avatar, a technological construct that is the proper amalgam of all these "best practices" available to EVERYONE individually through technology.

What's the BEST way to learn? One on one, child to parent, student to mentor, apprentice to master, .... Class size should ALWAYS be ONE. The student teacher ratio should always be 1:1. The ONLY reason it isn't is because of "efficiency" (/cost). But suppose we could create a holographic or YouTube-like representation of the best of all worlds (if you're old enough, think Max Headroom or HAL). Let each student interact 1-on-1 with that (all) subject-matter expert, that infinitely-patient encourager of learning through curiosity and watching how a master does it, doing it as a (Wii) master does it, following Yeats' admonition that "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.". And distribute that cost over every human on earth, now and in the future. THAT'S cost-effectiveness. If you're worried about social development, that can come from the avatar, too, and from recess interactions and out of school. But the accumulation of facts and skills and attitude? From Max (or whomever the student would care their partner to be).

Sure, there would be questions about whether there would be enough diversity in learning if the avatar were a constant companion of the student throughout the schooling process. But that didn't turn out so badly when students spent their entire lives as parts of the school of DaVinci or followed their mentor throughout their professional lives and doesn't turn out too badly in home schooling. We can figure out how to make any of those problems work.

But teachers as we know them now MUST GO. Sorry, we're just not good enough individually. We're lacking in skills and knowledge, one to the next. We get tired and cranky and sick and frustrated. WE don't need that. Students definitely don't need that. So who doesn't have that? Avatars.


Pamela's picture

As I read this posting "When teaching the right answers is the wrong direction," I couldn't help thinking about a book by Dr. Seuss titled Diffendorfer Day. It is one that I like to read for myself as well as for the students in my classroom. It is about teaching students to think and not just regurgitate information.

Patrice Forrester's picture

I agree that we have to encourage students to become independent thinkers. As an elementary school teacher I hear that question frequently. The use of essential questions throughout the lesson is important, it keeps student thinking and engaged in the lesson. It's always great to ask students to explain their thinking, because there are different methods to solving problems. Their explanations give crucial insight into how they process and problem solve. This process allows students to be responsible for their learning with a sense of accomplishment. Open ended questions encourage students to question, inquire and strategize. It fosters critical thinking in our students.

MJ's picture

As an academic librarian who teaches information literacy classes for undergraduate students, I find that beginning with open-ended questions that have no correct answers is a really great way to stimulate conversation and encourage critical thinking skills among students. It is so important to teach students how to think creatively. Asking questions or presenting problems with only one answer doesn't give students the opportunity to be innovative.

April McDonough's picture

I have come to really appreciate Art Costa. My experience with his course is through an online course through Canter. I have to say that it is one of the top two courses I have ever taken. I learned so much from him! So much of what he says regarding how to question and engage students into their own learning is so useful! I have found myself in my own classroom stopping myself, and using some of his "non-praise" words, in order to encourage the students to keep adding to our discussion, rather than to stop when they think I have gotten the "right answer." I can appreciate Elissar's comments about playing the opposition advocate, as it really lights up the discussion in my middle school social studies class. It was refreshing to hear Mr. Costa lay out strategies to show students that they can direct, and be responsible for, their learning. Most exciting, what I have found is the students using the questioning, and non-praise answers within their own small groups!!

Yolanda Ellis's picture
Yolanda Ellis
second year Language Arts teacher from New Jersey

Rebecca I really enjoyed reading your post. As a new teacher, I am always second guessing myself. Your post made me rethink the way I am presenting questions to my students. I want them to become thinkers. In order to make this possible I must challenge myself to make sure I am asking the right questions at the right time.

Cathleen C.'s picture

As I was reading this, I was vigorously shaking my head up and down because the students that I am currently teaching are exactly like this. I am teaching English to Korean students. The value of education here in Korea is beyond amazement. Parents push their children into everything hoping to make them a very smart and talented person. So, when I have them in class, I am constantly hearing "Teacher, am I right?", "Teacher, what is the right answer?", "Teacher, did I get one hundred?". The hardest one to hear is "Teacher, am I perfect?" or "Teacher, is this perfect?" because these students are so set on being perfect and achieving the highest scores possible. They don't focus on what is being taught or expanding on it. They want to know exactly what they need to study, and to make sure they have the most perfect, correct answer. It kills me most of the time as a teacher because I'm not only trying to teach them correct English, but expanding their knowledge about different cultures -worldly things. I've been trying to throw out to them so many open-ended questions that do not have a definitive answer, but they won't talk or answer because they are afraid of failure and can't figure out what the correct answer would be. I enjoyed reading the article because it gave me hope that it's possible for these perfectionist-seeking students to stop focusing so much on what is the right answer, and begin wondering and having an imagination.

Sarah's picture
Future Educator, Ventura County, California

I did enjoy reading this article. However, there are cases, such as science and math, where there is only ONE RIGHT ANSWER. How can we get children excited about learning these subjects and lead them to the right answer without freaking them out?

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Sarah,
Great question. Inquiry-based and experiential learning are a great fit for al subject areas. While, in some cases, there may be ONE RIGHT ANSWER to some of the things we ask the kids about, that doesn't always mean that there's ONE RIGHT WAY to arrive at that answer.

Science is particularly ripe for inquiry-based exploration, because that's how scientists actually work! There's so much potential in having our students do real hands-on tasks where they have to solve an engineering problem, or create something so that they can observe how it works.

In Math, there's a lot more latitude than one might think. I recommend that everybody who teaches math become familiar with the work of Dan Meyer, who talks a lot about the issue with always expecting simple answers to simple problems. He does a lot of great work in getting kids excited about math by giving them less information and then layering the mathematics into their discovery work. He age a great TED Talk a few years ago that's required watching:

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

How'm I doing?

How much do I hate that question? It drove me batty when I was teaching high school. Then I learned the most important rule of inquiry-based facilitation:

Answer questions with questions whenever possible. "I don't know. How *are* you doing?" "I don't know. ARE you done?" "Hmmmmm....good question. Where could you find the answer to that?"

Sarah, I think a bit part of this is in mixing up the way the students use the content, the way they solve the problem, the way they apply their learning. There may only be one answer to 2 + 2= ?, but there are a lot of different ways to explain how one arrived at the answer, to illustrate the problem, or to apply the concept of addition. Same goes for science, I think. An artfully designed messy problem to solve can really drive home the concept being learned.

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