Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Education Has Nothing to Do With Right and Wrong Answers

My wife Jennifer and I recently met a man named Leon. I found him to be thoughtful, sophisticated, and witty. Yesterday, I overheard Jennifer describing our new friend to someone else, "He's loud, inappropriate, and wildly hilarious." Surely, she wasn't talking about Leon, but she was. How can two people share an experience, yet come away with such different impressions?

Of course, it happens all the time. We both tasted the horse radish, but only I found it yummy. I experienced the roller coaster as terrifying while you want to ride it again and again. As a toddler, our daughter insisted that a waiter at our regular local restaurant was "a very tall guy" even though he was shorter than either of her parents. Indeed, we can never assume that the meaning we derive from any experience will have the same meaning for someone else.

The problem is that education as we know it in this country starts from the false premise that children can and should all derive the same meaning from the same experiences, and the degree to which they don't is the degree to which they have failed, or in the parlance of today's hyperventilating media, the degree to which they have "fallen behind." Educators are to start with the approved meaning, more commonly called "the right answer," and then to reverse engineer their lessons so as to most efficiently direct their students to that goal. Some of them get there just as the teacher expects, walking away from the experience in agreement with the adult-approved answer. Most, however, derive at least a somewhat different meaning from the experience of the teacher's lesson, but after being told they are wrong, they learn to adjust their answer to satisfy the adult's learning objective. This doesn't mean that they've learned the lesson, only that they've adopted the adult's view of the experience.

And then there are those who cannot set aside their "wrong" answer. The meaning they derive from their experience is so clear to them, so manifestly correct, that they simply can't set it aside the way the adults want them to. We might label those kids with a learning disability, hire them a tutor to help them get beyond their false meaning, or send them home with stacks of worksheets to drill them into finally see the light.

There is a time for "right" and "wrong" answers, of course. For instance, I don't want the engineers designing that new bridge to have alternative ideas about where the decimal point goes in their calculation, but our insistence upon them in school, of all places, stands in the way of learning, which is to say, thinking. As an educator, my goal has always been for children to think for themselves, but that's impossible when I don't remain neutral about the substance of any child's answer. The moment I start to signal to them what I hope they are going to say, I divert them away from thinking about the problem before them and toward guessing what I want them to say. 

If I want children to learn to think for themselves, to be critical thinkers, I'm at my best as an educator when I take the stand of a researcher. I shouldn't care what specific answer the child is considering at any given moment. I simply want to know how they are thinking about a problem, what they are thinking about it, and why, but not with the intention of correcting them. No, when we take the stand of a researcher, the goal is understanding. And the best way to get there is to find ways to encourage the child to talk about their thinking. When the child asks "Why?" our role is to ask, in turn, "What do you think?" and then to really listen, not to judge, but to learn.

Education has nothing to do with right and wrong answers. It is about the thinking. 

The other day I was reminded of a five-year-old who wanted to draw a picture of the concept: "What if one were two?" He sat over his blank paper for nearly an hour, brow furrowed, pencil twisting between his fingers. I listened to him talking through the paradox this concept contained. There was meaning there for him that I will likely never fully understand. At every turn, he bumped into problems, thought about them, turning them this way and that in the hope of figuring out how to answer the question. At the end of the day, his drawing was nothing more than a few faint and crooked lines. Not even his parents would have thought to hang it on the wall, a failure by school standards, but I knew, having done my research, that this boy had thought, and thought hard. It's a pity to realize how many children have been labeled failures, "behind," or even disabled because their thinking was deemed less important than a measly right answer.


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