“But What If I Don’t Know the Right Answer?”

  • Adrianne Moe

Many arguments about giving more student choice lead to discussions about grading. Teachers will ask, “How am I supposed to grade this assignment if I don’t know the answers or didn’t read the text?”. While I understand the theory behind this argument, it present many problems that result in actively working against creating a student-centered environment. The heart of this argument lies in the anxiety of teacher ego: I am supposed to know all of the things.

By feeling that as a teacher you should be the owner of all of the knowledge in the room, you are creating an environment of banking learning. In this model, frequently criticized by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, students and teachers play the traditional roles of school: Teacher teaches material. Teacher assigns work. Students complete work. Teacher grades work for correctness. Students receive a grade based on the correctness of their work. Rinse, wash, and repeat. This model is ineffective in every classroom, however, this model is particularly ineffective in an English classroom.

As English teachers, we should be teaching students the active skills of reading and writing. By definition, these skills do not ever have a “right” or “wrong” answer; a student is simply at different points of skill acquisition. A student who has mastered the skill of critical reading will be able to read a text, analyze that text for a deeper meaning, create a claim based on what they’ve read, and choose effective textual evidence to back up their analysis. A skilled writer will be able to turn those ideas into a cohesive piece. It will take many instances of creating an argument that, for example, includes logical fallacies or does not use evidence effectively, before students can begin refining and honing these skills. In order for these skills to be acquired, instances of trial and error must include flexibility on our part as educators. When we give students “reading check quizzes” or ask them to remember very obscure and specific details from a text that have no real inherent meaning (besides the “meaning” that has culturally been assigned to it either by us or society at large), we are teaching regurgitation not analytical thinking. By asking students to come up with their own ideas based on a text and to support those ideas with specific textual evidence, we are able to peek inside their minds to see how they are able to make sense of a text on their own. As the expert reader and writer in the room, we can then address issues of comprehension or clarity based on what the students have shared. We, as expert readers, know whether or not an idea makes sense based on the context or evidence we are given with it. As expert writers, we know whether or not a piece is cohesive, clear, and sufficiently supported. It really doesn’t matter if we have read the text they are digging into, we can read something and know if it is a valid argument.

In suggesting that student choice isn’t effective because we “won’t know the right answers”, we are also implying that students are deliberately trying to cheat us. The argument assumes that students will give us the wrong answer, in the hope that we won’t know it’s wrong, and then somehow “get away” with something. We, in turn, look like clowns for not knowing that their deliberately wrong answer was wrong. The kids stop taking us seriously and our whole pedagogy becomes a sham. At least, this is what the anxiety of teacher ego tells us. However, if this is the case then not only are we teaching out of fear our teacher ego will be bruised but we are also shelving important experiences for student growth by asking the wrong kinds of questions. Instead of asking questions that have a specific answer, we should be asking questions that require deep thinking and analysis. It is exceptionally more difficult to bullshit an answer to a question like: Describe a factor that creates an imbalance of power in our society by using your text as a primary source, then it is to guess the color of Holden’s hat. (Additionally, even if a student answers the hat question correctly, it does not provide me with any data or information about that student’s ability to read and think critically.)

The super awesome added bonus of allowing for a variety of student choice (aside from increased student engagement and transformative educational experiences) is that grading becomes far less tedious and taxing on us. Instead of reading a hundred responses about the same regurgitated material over and over again, we are seeing a fresh new perspective and idea with each piece we assess. Here we can get a lot more insight into a student’s ability to think and their ability to put together ideas than we ever could by encouraging final assessments that hinge on recycled parroted ideas or obscure text based questions. If students have a firm grasp on what they read, have a solid idea of they are trying to say about that text, part of the skill of writing is making all of that known to your reader. In fact, I would argue that as reading and writing teachers, we can be better and more effective if, as their readers, we are confused by their ideas or textual evidence. We can then give more authentic feedback about what wasn’t clear (because we were actually confused) and provide more insight into how the piece can be improved. Since we are not an expert on the text, we are viewing their piece with a level of objectivity that we lack when we already know the “right” answer or analysis. In turn, I can have a real conversation with them about the text by asking them questions that probe thinking deeper because they know that I don’t know the “right” answer; the fear of being “wrong” is removed from the equation. Now, they are the experts on that text and that can be fundamental in building student confidence.

If our main concern lies in whether or not students are getting the “right answer” or whether or not we the teachers know all of the “right answers”, then we are missing out on the bigger picture of education. There are very few times in life when there will be one right answer. In fact, most of the time we have to process many different potential outcomes based on what current information we have. How well we can process those outcomes will affect our ability, or inability, to make an informed decision. It is our responsibility as educators to model this skill and provide opportunities for students to hone this skill in whatever ways we can. If we continue participating in the banking approach to teaching, students will not only struggle to acquire the real academic skill of critical reading and writing, but after they’ve left our rooms, they will also struggle to know how to decipher ambiguity in their own lives.

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