The Right Answer

Tonight, I had a driven discussion with my daughter about her high school classes (she would replace the word “driven” with “frustrating”).  Her assignment was to take the role of president for a day and give relatively quick solutions to complex issues and problems facing our country today–with some exaggerations.  The discussion started when she asked me about money, the economy, the best educational system in the world, and some other opinions.  She then took out the paper on which the assignment was printed and read off no fewer than 8 very complex issues that she was being asked to solve, more or less, in about 2 hours.

I asked when it was due.

She said tomorrow.

My eyes widened.

Hers rolled.

My daughter is an overachiever–big time!  Her understanding of the assignment was to research as much as possible about each of those issues and what has been done so far to tackle them, and then write a well-studied and correct paper.  In other words, she was looking for the right answer.  I told her that I don’t think that was what her teacher had in mind.  If he gave one night to complete this assignment, then I was sure he was asking for ideas based on background knowledge, not a full analysis, followed by drafts of legislation.  My daughter, being a teenager, argued with me for a little while (about 45 minutes), and then came to agree with me.

Her problem? She doesn’t “work that way.”

I know she doesn’t.  Neither have many of the students I’ve taught over the years.  Why? Because they are trained to either know or find the right answer.  This is a little frustrating for me, because in the 21st century world, there often isn’t a right answer.

I muttered that she wouldn’t have this problem if high schools ran under my rules.  She had to ask, so I told her.

The culture of standardized testing requires correct answers.  In mathematics, that’s fine (although there is always room for creativity there, too), but in every other core subject, training students to seek “correct answers” is not only boring and stifling to student creativity, it’s also dangerous.

Every time Arne Duncan touts his Race to the Top grants as a way to boost innovation, I feel a little nauseated.  There is no way that prepping students for standardized tests, pigeonholing students by ability, and focusing on the Common Core at the expense of arts, humanities, and sports is boosting innovation.  Duncan’s program is crushing that innovation under the weight of one-size-fits-all curriculum and single-minded progress metrics.

If her high school courses ran the way I would want to see, the assignment would start with a complex question which had a complex answer.  No, several complex answers.  That’s the way the world works.  You can’t ask high school students to solve the healthcare issues in this country by finding the right answer, but most of them will try to and will want to know if they did find it.  Those several complex answers would be the basis for discussion and debate.  Then, further research.  Then, more discussion and debate.  Then, a final proposal and presentation…and maybe even a blog post, which is way more telling than a stupid multiple-choice test!

I strongly believe that one of the reasons that high school students either drop out or aren’t “career and college ready” is because they are so worried about finding the right answers.  And when they don’t get the right answer after a certain number of tries?  Screw it; I quit.

I also strongly believe that standardized testing and the culture of being right all the time (the American way!) needs to change if we plan to stay competitive in this global knowledge economy.  There’s too much information, there are too many potentially “right” answers.  We don’t need to learn how to find the right answer; we need to learn how to find new answers, ways to communicate civilly about them, and how to evaluate their efficacy.

In other words, we need to be more flexible and analytical.  Do you “work that way?”

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About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

2 Responses to The Right Answer

  1. ruralteacher says:

    This makes me think of a conversation we were having at our Union’s Executive Committee Meeting yesterday. Because teachers are now required to give Pre and Post tests to assess student growth, many of our “Honor Roll” kids are having huge meltdowns. Why? Well, the Pre Test is actually the final test – and they don’t KNOW the answers! They are so used to knowing the answers and getting things right, that they are feeling demoralized and stressed.
    All of this is being done so that a teacher can “guess” at how much growth a student will make? It’s nonsense!

  2. Jason says:

    Your post makes me groan with recognition. I teach Pre-AP English II at a suburban high school outside of Oklahoma City. Many of students are high achievers, but they rarely focus on their learning–just on their grades/scores. Sometimes the pressure comes from above. Today, for instance, a boy asked to speak with me in the hallway about the three most recent grades I posted. I soon realized his grade had dropped from an A to a B, and that his parents had grounded him. We still have 3 weeks of school left! Not only are our students obsessed with right answers all the time, parents are too. I’ve read two books by Alfie Kohn and am convinced that teaching in a school system without grades would be a dream job.

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