I am offering this reflection at the strong suggestion of my beloved spouse, Leaves on the Current, who says it is one of the most important principles underlying my own teaching.
To me the greatest failure of our current approach to educational reform is by and large we discourage students from taking intellectual risks. We condition them to fear being wrong. In one sense this is not surprising - look at the price we make politicians pay if they ever admit they were wrong. Yet unless all of us are willing to be wrong, to think beyond what is "conventional wisdom" how does knowledge advance? Where is the advancements of science and technology? How do we address inequities in society.
While there is no doubt that those of us who are educators have some responsibility to ensure that our students know what we think we have already learned, we should not be restricting their learning to acquiring previously ascertained knowledge and understanding.
When we rely upon multiple choice questions where the student is required to select one out of a preselected number (usually four or five) answers without being able to explain he reasoning, and when we place possible punitive sanctions upon choosing an answer other than the one we have preselected (with no partial credit for a 2nd best answer) we are encouraging convergent thinking and discouraging the kind of divergent thinking that advances human knowledge and understanding.
Please keep reading as I explore this idea further.
Yes there are some questions for which seemingly there is only one correct answer. People will often cite mathematics: in simple arithmetic, 1+1 must always equal 2. That is true in most number bases, and as an absolute value.
But what if our number base has only 2 symbols - 0 and 1. What would appear as a result of that arithmetic operation is this:
1 + 1 = 10
remember that in number theory whee N is the number of symbols, the position to the right is N to power 0, which always equals 1; the next position is N to the first power, the next position is N to the first power, which is = to 1; the next position is N to then 2n power (square); the next N to the 3rd power, and so on.
Those of us who have read memory dumps from computers which work on binary numbers understand this principal. We can also in earlier IBM computer work with a number base of 16, which was a shorthand accumulation of binary.
If you are confused, try 2+2
in our number base of 10 symbole, 2+2=4.
In a number base of 3 symbols, 0, 1 & 2, 2+2=11 - the right hand position equal 1x1 and the next position equals 1x3, which when added together equal our value of 4 even though we tend to read it as 11. *this is a correction to the base 3 math originally posted
But carry the thinking a step further. What if instead of going from right to left and increasing values, we had a mathematical system that when from left to right?
Now imagine how our perception of things is broadened when we allow for these possibilities. If student violates the convention of how we represent mathematics, is that student always wrong, if that student can still perform the necessary mathematical calculations?
I realize this is not necessarily the best example, so that those of you who are mathematicians please do not be too harsh on me. And please, keep reading for what I hope are better examples.
I have taught social studies, including history of various kinds and government. I have also taught courses in religion and social issues, and invariably in my instruction I have had to address issues of geography, psychology and economics. But I have also had to address other issues - linguistics, perception, scientific knowledge, engineering, etc. This is in part because human experience is not so easily contained within the specific domains by which we organize knowledge, and thus how we instruct.
I have said that if we did not allow for divergent thinking there would be no scientific advancement. I have also said that requires us to allow students take the risk of being wrong. The scientific method itself presumes the possibility of being wrong as one attempts to demonstrate the proof of on's hypothesis - simply put, our approach to science presumes that assertions are capable of being falsified. Thus science is NOT based upon received wisdom, which is why we reject the notion of so-called "creation science" which is a theological assertion based on received wisdom which rejects the notion that it can be in error.
Let me focus on my classroom experience if I may. As Americans we have a strong antipathy towards what we perceive as dictatorship, although we are sometimes willing to support those who are authoritarian who support our side in international conflict: remember Jeanne Kirkpatrick's assertion during the Reagan administration of the distinction between such authoritarian regimes which provided order versus totalitarian regimes which suppressed liberty. Of course for those under the power of such governments the experience might be very different than our interpretation. This was once brought home to me by a young lady born in an African nation I do not now remember, who argued that the very dictatorial ruler that the US despised was the reason she was alive, because he used his dictatorial power to protect the largely despised minority groups from which her family came. Upon reflection we might also think back of the former Yugoslavia and how under Tito the ethnic hatred that simmered beneath the surface was largely controlled but after his death led to great violence and destruction when that hatred and the concomitant lust for power were unleashed.
But it is another experience that most shapes my attitude towards wanting to allow students to take risks. It comes from my first year of teaching, 95-96. I had asked a question and a young lady had given an answer that was totally unexpected. For some reason, rather than just saying "no, sorry, that's wrong" and seeking the "correct" answer from another student, something in her answer caused me to ask her why she had given that answer. And from what she said, I suddenly realized something important.
When I get an unexpected answer but then ask why, there are a series of possible explanations.
First, the student may acknowledge it was just a guess in which case I can move on. That is actually pretty rare.
The student may have misunderstood the question, and the reasoning behind the 'wrong" answer shows me how clarifying the question will help the student self-correct.
Related to this, the way the question was phrased may be misleading. and in this case as well, restating it also allows self correction.
Both of these can include having students rather than the teacher restate the question - this works on the skill of communicating with people of different perceptions, empowers th students to take ownership of their learning, and opens the possibility- very important - that the teacher will not be the fount of all knowledge and can be wrong.
What happened on the occasion was something of far greater significance. When the student offered her explanation it was clear she was viewing the topic of the question in a way I had never considered. It was the most important moment not only of that lesson, but of the entire week.
Where I clash with some in this nation is that I do not believe it is my responsibility to inculcate points of view, nor do I think the model of education is to peel back a child's skull and pour in the knowledge, that image from "Waiting for Superman" that is so wrong, so alien to real learning.
i think as a teacher I have a responsibility to challenge students, to get them outside their comfort zones, to take the risk of being wrong, of trying something that doesn't work.
In the process, in what should be the safe environment of the classroom, students will begin to learn how to take risks, what risks might be too great or offer too little reward, and how to learn from the mistakes they have made.
As a teacher, I am most effective when I model for my students. i took all kinds of risks as a teacher. I made mistakes, and I acknowledged them. I tried to encourage my students to do the same.
We are still in the Sesquicentennial of our great internecine conflict, the Civil War. We had people willing to kill and die for the principle that one human being could own another. In general as a society we have moved beyond that point.
I was born in 1946. In my lifetime in the United States, we have seen many changes that would have been unfathomable to many of the generation of my parents, both born in the 2nd decade of the last century, and even more so to my grandparents, all born in the 19th Century, two of whom were born in Eastern Europe.
Woman got the vote when my parents were still in school.
Woman began to attend colleges and professional schools, although women CEOs of companies they did not found or inherit from their families was exceedingly rare when I was a school child.
Women now participate in government in important ways - we have 3 women on the Supreme Court, we now have to take off our shoes to count the number of women in the US Senate (I remember when only Margaret Chase Smith of Maine sat in the Upper Chamber), and the idea of a woman in the Oval Office is no longer viewed as something fictional and improbable.
We can talk about increased rights and protections for racial and ethnic minorities.
Twice Mormons have been serious contenders for this nation's highest office.
Only a few decades after a Supreme Court decision which upheld state sodomy laws we are seeing a clear movement towards full marriage equality, which will bring this nation into conformity with many nations with whom we maintain close economic ties and with whom we are allied militarily.
These and many other changes in society were considered outlandish, unacceptable, wrong for much of my early life. There are some who still refuse to consider them, and what is interesting is how often their arguments against are from some kind of received authority that will not accept the possibility that they could be in error.
I have offered many words this morning. I have barely scratched the surface of this important topic.
I know a major part of what made me an effective teacher was my willingness to take risks to make learning effective and meaningful for my students. I was not always successful. Sometimes I would find myself stopping in mid-lesson and saying "this isnt working, is it?' or "This is pretty boring, so let's try something different."
i also know that what was important is that I challenged students to go beyond - to take the risk of going someplace they did not fully understand, of getting outside their comfort zones, of occasionally failing but then learning how to self-correct.
My last few years I stopped curving tests. Because students would have to take multiple choice questions on either the state test or the AP test, I would let them take the questions they had missed, give me the "correct" answer and explain why it is was correct and they had been wrong and get half credit for each corrected answer.
Occasionally a student might make a cogent argument about why, given how the questions was asked, their original answer should be considered correct. In that case I would give them full credit and rework the question on my test master.
I learned from taking risks as a thinker. I wanted to similarly empower my students.
I think this encouraging of risk taking should be essential to our educational processes, but is sadly missing.
Should I ever again be a classroom teacher, this will be a fundamental principle of how I teach. As it has been for almost two decads.