Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Problem With Right And Wrong Answers

When I arrived at Woodland Park 9 years ago, I inherited a well stocked classroom although I didn't know it at the time. To me all the toys, games, manipulatives, and puzzles looked old and worn, and there appeared to be a lot of junk mixed in with the good stuff. For my first couple years I was only teaching the 3-5 class, sharing the classroom with another teacher, and both of us were reluctant to toss anything out of deference to one another. We kept talking about meeting up some weekend to make some joint decisions, but it never happened.

I've tried to be brutal over the years since, purging things from our shelves and closets that we never use, but there's still a lot, and now, sadly or gladly, I've added to it. 

One of those inherited items, not tossed in one of my binges, largely because it seemed to be complete and didn't take up much space is this set of "Life Sequence" cards from Lakeshore. There's the one in the picture, a baby becoming an old man, as well as a seed growing into a tree, an egg hatching and becoming a duck, a tadpole becoming a frog, a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly . . . There may be a couple more, but you get the idea.

What I tend to not like about these kinds of things is the temptation for me as the teacher to insist on the right answer. I introduced them by calling them "story puzzles." Don't ask me why, but it's what popped into my head when I was trying to find a way to define the word "sequence." And for a time this worked as a useful name for them.

Lachlan, for instance, was working on the orange tree sequence. He started with the seed, then the sprout, then the sapling, then the full grown tree. He was left with a picture of the whole orange, sliced to reveal the seeds. I was waiting to see at what end of the sequence he would place it, because after all, either end would work.

Instead, he tossed it aside, saying, "That's it."

I asked, "What about the orange?"

He looked confused so I walked us through the story the pictures told, "First there is a seed in the ground that grows roots. Then it becomes a sprout. Then it becomes a little tree. Then it becomes a big tree. Then . . ."

"Then that's it," he finished for me.

"Well, what about the orange? I see oranges on that big tree."

"Teacher Tom, those aren't oranges, those are apples!" It's hard as an adult, who knows the "proper" sequence because he's seen the numbers on the backs of the cards, to keep his mouth shut, but this time I did. After all, he was right, you don't get oranges from an apple tree.

Shortly thereafter, I watched Peter put together this sequence. I tried the same technique I'd used with Lachlan.

"Okay, let me see how your story goes. First he is a teenager, then he is a daddy, then he is a baby, then he is a boy. That doesn't sound right."

Peter answered, "It isn't right. It goes like this, first there is a little man, and he meets a big man, and they find a baby, and they give it to the boy. The end."

Later, Isak discovered the numbers of the backs of the cards that dictate the "proper" order. After he'd taught his friends that shortcut, they made short work of the cards, no longer caring about the pictures on the front or the stories they could tell with them. They then dispensed with them as quickly as a middle schooler who discovers the homework answers in the back of the book, and moved on to something else.

I guess I'm glad I saved these cards, but they're too much of a one-and-done kind of proposition to really deserve a share of the limited space on our shelves. As long as we were telling stories, the kids were engaged, but the moment they became about right and wrong answers, we voted with our feet. 

To their credit, the cards don't take up much room so I'll keep them. When I get them out next year, however, I'll make sure to black out the numbers on the backs.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

When I started teaching we used sequence cards as part of our evaluations (understands sequence--check!). But what I found is that every child could tell a story about whatever sequence they put the cards in. So we kept them for a story telling device. Then I found five year olds didn't need any help telling stories. They just plunge right in and go! I think the school still has sets, but I don't use them anymore.

Anonymous said...

Might be fun to mix all the cards together so that the big man and the little man could (for e.g.) plant an apple tree...

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

So true. And you found a way to repurpose those darn cards!
PS I am unable to get 100 percent on the DCPS Kindergarten assessments. They had a picture of a picket fence and then pictures of other things. You have to match the fence with an image that rhymes with it. Couldn't find one. Turns out it was a "gate."

Jeanne Zuech said...

Love your post of uplifting how to truly listen to children which, as we all know, also has no correct sequence :) Thank you, Tom!

Play for Life said...

We had a similar series of cards Tom and like your children ours tended to follow the numbers on the back so we took all the sets and popped them into the one box. That way the children could mix and match them and make up brand new stories. We all had much more fun with them then.
Donna :) :)

BSK said...

I had a similar set and also called them "Story Cards" challenging the kids to make stories with them. As long as they made a logical, sequential story, I assumed they "got it". I too bristled at the notion of a "right way" to do things that clearly have multiple ways of being done. Obviously, there are some "right ways" in the world, but far less often than we often believe. And certainly never with story cards :-)