Monday, June 20, 2022

The Cult Of Right And Wrong Answers

Dale Chihuly

When I was a boy, a fire ravaged our neighborhood, destroying dozens houses. Our own was saved by neighbors who protected it with garden hoses, but that fire completely burned our yard, including our second car and our bicycles. Our family had been away for the weekend and I'll never forget returning to the devastation. We sat there in stunned silence, all of us, not speaking, not able to make sense of it. It's a feeling that has returned to me at times throughout my life: witnessing the horrors of 9/11 being replayed on the television being one example. The insurrection at our nation's Capitol was another.

I've since, of course, moved beyond the stunned silence. Our neighbors told us the story of the fire. I've since learned the story of 9/11 and we are now, as a nation, beginning to learn the story of the insurrection. Whereas, I was at first confounded by these and other things, I now "understand" them because I've been able to place them into the context of the story of my life. 

Invariably, in science fiction stories that involve time travel into the past, the protagonists are warned that they must not change a thing or else the present could be irrevocably altered. The more I learn about how the minds of humans work, however, the more it seems possible that even if time travelers were constantly tweaking the past, we in the present would never notice, except, perhaps in those moments of stunned, uncomprehending silence that come before we do the work of making this new information part of our story.

As one of the world's leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience Mike Gazzaniga puts it, "This is what our brain does all day long. It takes input from various areas of our brain and from the environment and synthesizes it into a story that makes sense." For all we know, those time travelers from the future are constantly messing around with the past, and our brains, as they do, are seamlessly weaving it into the story we are telling ourselves.

We are born into chaos. As Daphne and Charles Maurer write in their book The World of the Newborn: "His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery." And from that moment, probably even before, our instinct is to begin making it all into a story, one that brings all of these sensations into some sort of order. 

This story-making instinct forms the foundation of learning. We take in new information, sensations, and ideas, then seek to fit them into our stories. Most of the time, this is relatively effortless. After all, from the moment of birth, we have been masterfully assimilating all manner of confounding and inexplicable things into our stories. We've already had our timelines disrupted countless times and we've become adept at making order from chaos.

Education as we perceive it in schools, is an attempt to one-up Mother Nature. We believe, stupidly, that we can, somehow, do a better job of ordering the world than the children themselves. We try to artificially confound them with facts, questions, and equations, then, just as artificially, usurp the role of their own story-telling brains, by equally artificially telling them our pre-approved story: the "correct" and only story. This is what I call the cult of right and wrong answers, this anti-human idea that answers are the end result of learning. 

Psychologist and educator Eleanor Duckworth explains that learning is indistinguishable from thinking. "Intelligence is a matter of having wonderful ideas. In other words, it is a creative affair. When children are afforded occasions to be intellectually creative then not only do they learn about the world, but as a happy side effect their general intellectual ability is stimulated as well." In the cult of right and wrong answers, we do exactly what we must not do: rob children of the opportunity to be intellectually creative, which is to say we attempt to replace their creative stories with our rote answers.

When we allow children to play, to ask and answer their own questions, we free them to be intellectually creative, to synthesize and re-synthesize their own stories, to discover their own genius. We can keep them safe and healthy, we can pick them up when they fall, we can sooth them when they are hurt or afraid, but beyond that, the best possible use for our time with children is to be intellectually creative ourselves: to allow ourselves to be confounded and inspired by them, and to step back and allow young people the creative freedom to tell, tell, and re-tell stories that help them make sense of the world.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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