With today’s heated education debates over testing, common core, measuring achievement and engagement, it pays to take a step back and look at what the overarching goals for education should be. This author examines the value of a right answer compared to right reasoning or critical thinking skills.

In this article, Rosenblatt sees value in allowing students to explore creative and critical learning skills. He sees inherent value in the notion that a correct thought process or critical thought path can be just as valuable as a right answer even if the path doesn’t quite lead to a correct answer.

VOCABULARY 180There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin asks his dad, “Where does the sun go when it sets?” Dad replies that it goes to Arizona.

“But isn’t the sun really hot?” asks Calvin.

“Yes, that’s why the rocks out there are all red.”

“But if the sun goes to Arizona at night, how come it rises in the East in the morning?”

“Now be quiet and go to sleep.”

We might scoff at Dad for not giving the right answers, but I think he was doing exactly what he should. Calvin starts by asking a question looking for an answer, but his subsequent questions have a different character. They are pushing things. Calvin knows the sun is hot, so it’s a problem to say that the sun goes to Arizona. It’s clever of Dad to point to the fiery red sandstones of the West, but again, Calvin knows the sun rises in the East, so something must be wrong if it has spent the night in Arizona. Dad’s only failure was that he couldn’t keep it up. Until the last panel, he’s a great model for effective teaching because he has provoked critical thinking in his son. Right answers are a lot less important than being able to think critically.

But there is an issue here. Statewide exams have become pervasive and they emphasize right answers. Can we nurture right reasoning and still meet the demands for right answers? Let’s rephrase that: Why should right answers get in the way of right reasoning?

Teachers have a tendency to tell students what they need to know, instead of asking them how they might make sense of things. In his intriguing book A Is for Ox, Barry Sanders talks about the importance of letting children work through things via internal or external dialogue: “Young children need to feel lost, confused, and bewildered enough to concoct their own stories in order to climb out of tight situations. They need to string together narrative threads from here and there to reach meaning in their lives” (1995, p. 47).

Telling students what they need to know fosters a passive witnessing. Students do not uncover; the text and the teacher do this for them. The material does not provoke; it lies there, inert. The lesson does not forge an understanding; it secures identification. Even the various hands-on activities we offer are formatted to provide a witnessing. With no driving perplexity, students feel no push to string together a narrative that explains things. We need, instead, to frame study so that students are working to make sense of things.

To see this played out, here’s an example of an exchange from a 3rd grade class that is studying the American Indian. The students are responding to a story in which a boulder is portrayed as being alive.

“Rocks could have different personalities. I mean, how do we know what they’re thinking? Big rocks are probably stronger than little pebbles.”

“I think rocks might be alive because you can sometimes see moss growing on them, and moss is alive.”

“I don’t think they could be alive because rocks don’t change. All living things have to grow. Rocks don’t grow.”

“Yes they do. I have a kit and I grew crystals once.”

The statements show a mix of things the students have heard and things they’ve figured out. What is especially striking is how they are listening to one another and addressing the arguments in each other’s comments. This is the same dynamic we saw between Calvin and his father in Calvin and Hobbes.

The teacher then asked the class to list things they thought were alive, things they thought were not alive, and things they weren’t sure about. The students also went for a walk and picked up some things from each category. Then they pulled their lists together. The “not sure” list is especially valuable because perplexity is a critical engine in the push to understand. The list included items such as milk, fire, rocks, lightning, electricity, and words. Note how two items from the “not sure” list, milk and fire, figure in the discussion after the students had compared their lists:

“The things on the nonliving list can’t eat, sleep, breathe, or move on their own.”

“I think things like milk straight from cows and yogurt and yeast are alive because they have bacteria.”

Teacher: “What do you mean by bacteria?”

“Sort of like little things that move around and cause diseases.”

Teacher: “Why do you think these bacteria are alive?”

“I guess because they move around on their own.”

“Yeah, but milk doesn’t really move around on its own, so it couldn’t be considered alive.”

“Fire might be alive, because it breathes and it eats food.”

Teacher: “Why do you say fire breathes?”

“If it doesn’t have air, it will go out. You know, sometimes you have to blow on a fire to get it going.”

These discussions were written down on sheets of paper and posted on walls for everyone to review. This was a great practice because students realized how much their views were valued—a key tenet for their teacher. The teacher also asked students to explain themselves more fully. This had little to do with whether the students’ comments were “right.” The teacher was grooming a sense for argument over expressing opinion. Students often feel propositions are matters of either fact or opinion, but what makes science interesting lies in a third category: reasoned or warranted views. The teacher was highlighting the reason that lies behind student propositions.

For the list of living things, the students came up with the following common characteristics:

  • They need water, air, food, warmth, sun, protection, earth, rest, and each other.
  • They also can move, make more of themselves, grow, die, and go to the bathroom.

Having formulated a hypothesis about the character of living things, the teacher suggested they test it. To test the notion that living things move, she asked the class to consider plants and said, “What kind of experiment could we do to see if plants move toward the sun?”

So often we lay out the protocol for an activity, telling kids what they are supposed to do, but in this case, the teacher has started with a problem and invited the students to design an experiment. Using problems instead of protocols to frame an activity is a powerful principle (Rosenblatt, 2010).

The students quickly established the core idea and decided to use a Popsicle stick to mark the original orientation of the plant. The students then conducted the experiment and discussed their observations:

“The stem moved away from the Popsicle stick towards the sunny window.”

“I don’t think it really moved toward the sun. I just think it’s a little taller and heavier now, so its weight is bending it away from the stick.”

Teacher: “What could we do to see who is right about this?”

“You could turn the plant around and leave it for a few days and see if it kept bending the way it is bending now or if it started bending back toward the sun.”

With these assignments and others, the teacher encouraged students to explain themselves and test their hypotheses. In doing so, the students have uncovered the K–4 standards for themselves, and they have done it by trying to make sense of things with only modest and subtle prodding from their teacher.

In this paradigm, homework is not about checking to see if students got it right but about the extent of students’ abilities to engage the task, their degrees of organization, their displays of creativity and imagination, and, most especially, their analytical sensibilities. The teacher evaluates homework based on questions like

  • Do the students have difficulty coming up with ideas or do they have long lists?
  • Do the things on their “not-sure” lists show they were really grappling with the problems of defining something as living or nonliving?
  • Do their lists show any attempt at categorization?

We are long past due a sea change in our classrooms. Factors have combined to squeeze out almost every drop of open discussion. Inquiry is seen as inefficient and time-consuming (Alberts, 2004). Yet a recent study by Yager and Akcay (2010) demonstrates the advantages of inquiry: Teachers said their positive experiences with students led them to pursue further inquiry projects. And students who are taught via inquiry performed every bit as well as other students on short-answer exams, and they demonstrated growth in analytical habits of mind, attitude, creativity, and their appreciation of both the nature and the history of science.

Continue reading: Right Reasoning and Right Answers

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