Parents wonder, "Will my child get a good education at this school?" Typically, they get anecdotal reports from friends, family, and neighbors. Parents might also consult average test results and graduation or college enrollment rates.
I have different advice: Ask the principal, “How do teachers in this school respond when a child gets a wrong answer?” That will reveal far more. Personal reports are, well, too personal and not applicable to the range of students. Test scores and such indicators reveal more about the school's demographics than the overall quality of learning. More powerfully, school-wide treatment of inevitable wrong answers provide clues about what matters most: How learning is advanced and how students are treated.
Why are wrong answers important?
Questions are at the heart of learning because–framed well–they cause students to think. When questions are easy enough to elicit automatically-recalled correct responses, they are useless. An effective question causes students to take a breath and ponder: "Wait, let me think about that." So, if children always answer correctly, something is amiss. How unavoidable wrong or partially correct answers are handled is crucial.
Alternatively, when students lack sufficient developing skills and foundation to attempt a response, too challenging questions are more likely to shut down learning than prompt it. Ideally, a continuum of answers that shows the range of students' understanding provides teachers and students with the information needed to move learning forward.
Classroom questions have two audiences.
Students are the most important. Well-framed questions challenge them to figure something out. They tell students what is important to learn. With targeted feedback from teachers, children develop the skills to improve and the confidence that they can learn from mistakes.
For teachers, effective questions probe the range of students' development to surface the nuances of students' understanding. However, what happens after students respond determines whether questions are helpful, harmful, or useless.
When I worked as an Elementary Math and Science Director, I used to show teacher applicants this question and a fictitious student answer.
A child left home with 43 cents in her pocket to buy candy at a store. When she got there, only 26 cents was left. Oh no, there was a hole in her pocket. How much money did she lose?
I asked would-be new teachers what they would do when they saw this response and what they knew about the student’s understanding.
The vast majority began with the phrase, “I’d tell them that……,” followed by an explanation of the correct use of the procedure for “borrowing.”
I hoped to hear, "I'd ask them how they got that answer." Or, "How did you know to subtract?"
Then, I wanted to hear that the child could read and understand the problem, knew to subtract, and some basic subtraction facts.
I designed the student question to elicit a range of their understanding. The questions for teachers served the same purpose.
I wanted to know if they understood that immediately telling a student, “That’s wrong,” is an admonishment likely to inhibit learning rather than rethinking. I was looking to hear that the prospective teacher understood that acknowledging what the student did understand is the vital first step to build upon.
I wanted to determine whether teacher candidates were inclined to snap assessment of student understanding rather than probing for nuances, or a recognition that the student might say, "Whoops, I made a mistake," to self-correct and think, "I can learn from my mistakes," That is the essential disposition to promote future learning. The development of that attitude is far more important than being told, "You're wrong," or being given the correct answer.
I was also looking to determine the teacher's ability to offer a clue to the students about where they went wrong. For example, a teacher might ask the child whether adding the remaining 26 cents to their 23 cents answer should total the starting 43 cents, hoping to hear, "Wait, 23 + 26 = 49. What's wrong?"
A next teacher move might include using pennies grouped in tens to solve the problem to develop a stronger sense of place value ahead of the poorly understood "borrowing or regrouping" procedure. The point is that questions and subsequent wrong answers provide teachers and students with information for the next steps to advance learning.
Sometimes, I asked teachers, "How do you respond when students get the right answer?" In my professional development role, I encouraged teachers to ask students to explain their thinking, right or wrong. Students should not experience teacher follow-up questions as reproach or embarrassment. Requests for explanations should always be perceived by students as an opportunities for further learning.
Why ask the principal?
Of course, parents should talk to their child's teacher, but every parent knows that a child’s educational experience changes over the years. Differences in teachers' strengths and weaknesses are normal and unavoidable. The mix of children varies from year to year. The culture of the school and the leadership of the school's principal determine the all-important consistency of expectations.
Hopefully, the principal will not say that teachers provide correct answers. Hopefully, the principal will talk about the power of wrong answers to guide the next steps for teachers and students.
As with students, the question for principals is designed to reveal the range of their thinking, and therefore learning expectations and practices in classrooms across the school. Try it and see what you find out!
Arthur H. Camins retired in 2023 after thirty-three years leading science professional learning and curriculum and assessment development projects in school districts in New York City, Hudson, MA, Louisville, KY, Stevens Institute of Technology, and UC Berkeley. He taught Pre-K, K, 1st, and 5th grade, and elementary science, mostly in Brooklyn for seventeen years. Arthur continues to write about education and social justice.