Thursday, April 7, 2011

When the Right Answer is Wrong

People spend a lot of time talking about what's wrong with education and trying to "fix" it. Usually, when I listen to this banter I become frustrated, and then I'm relieved, because it doesn't directly affect me, right?  Wrong. Of course it directly affects me.  It affects all of us.

I can't claim to be an expert of course.  And I wouldn't want to, either.  I think I've shared my opinion about "experts" before.  But don't some things just seem obviously wrong?  As in VERY OBVIOUSLY wrong?  First of all, kids seem to be more stressed out than ever, and there are many studies and reports that claim to back this up. Don't get me started on studies and reports, either....the results of studies are often spouted with lots of exclamation points!!!  Our kids are busy, busy, busy.....and they're teaching them to read and do math earlier and earlier and yet somehow, that's not cutting it.  How is that?  Could it be that doing things earlier and earlier doesn't really....well....mean anything? 

They say that test scores are lower.  That must be bad.  But do tests really mean anything?  And have you seen the tests?  When Ellie was studying for the SAT, one of her practice questions had her read an excerpt from A Modest Proposal.  Then she had to answer questions about it.  She correctly answered that it was an example of satire.  (If you've not read A Modest Proposal, the author suggests that the way to end both hunger and overpopulation is to eat is meant to be ridiculous.)  The next question asked her to identify the author as a) something b) something c) naive d) something.  Ellie said none of the answers made sense, but she eventually chose one - and got it wrong.  The correct answer was c - naive.  The explanation was that it would be unrealistic to expect people to eat babies as a solution to overpopulation and hunger.  This was said after identifying the piece as a satire.  In the section discussing satirical writing, the study guide even went so far as to point out that in order to produce satire, the author must have a deep understanding and knowledge of the issue.  So it was identified (correctly) as a satire, written by a naive author with deep understanding and knowledge of the issue.
*I do not have the actual study guide in front of me, and I'm know, for a fact, that I'm paraphrasing....but you get the idea.

So kids are wrung through the ringer trying to produce correct answers.  That is the ticket to success.  Correct answers.  Of which there is usually only one.  Even though, in real life, things are rarely that easy.  There are very few situations in the real world where there is only one correct answer, yet that seems to be the holy grail of education - getting that correct answer - even if it makes no sense because the question was poorly written or worse yet, written by a person who didn't understand the meaning of the word satire.

The paradox of this situation is that we all agree that what we want our education system to produce is creative, ingenious, out of the box thinking problem-solvers.  And then we stand around scratching our heads when that isn't what our system of teaching to standardized tests produces....even though we get those little suckers reading by the age of four!!  To expect children who are taught that there is only one right answer for every question to be out of the box thinkers is like thinking a satire can be written by a person who is naive about the subject matter. It makes no sense.

Very little about the process of institutionalized learning makes sense.  Joel is still chugging away at that geography course he's taking through Texas Tech distance learning.  He has one more lesson and he's done! Yay! Done with geography and we'll put it on a transcript and mark it off our list and consider him educated.  Even though....the textbook he's using is outdated.  Even though....the course only covered 2/3 of the outdated textbook.  Even though....they never touched on either Asia or the Middle East. Technically, they've touched on Asia by studying Russia - but you know what I mean - the Other Asia that exports all of the goods and services we use....where they just had a gigantic earthquake and tsunami, and where nuclear reactors are melting down.  Even though all he's studied is North America, Europe, and Russia.  He has written essays about the effects of The Cold War - and I've got nothing against that - it's just that other interesting things have happened since and weren't discussed AT ALL.  Joel learned about Russia as if we are still IN The Cold War.  His final essay was about how Europe should deal with its emerging environmental warming got a nod in this outdated textbook, while Acid Rain!!! was discussed hysterically for several pages.  Joel, who doesn't understand that he's supposed to only use the outdated textbook to find information, simply got on the European Union's website where they lay out a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 90% by the year 2050.  And you know what?  He'll probably get it wrong because the answer about how to deal with Acid Rain!! is quite obviously in the book. Also - shouldn't we be giving a little info about the Middle East where we're fighting 3 wars?  Even if it isn't GASP in the outdated textbook? 

And yet, the thing about our unschooling that seems to concern wonderfully concerned people is the fact that we don't use textbooks.  That we read a ton of non-textbooks and we have the Internet and the time a big, bulky, expensive textbook goes to is outdated.  Our world moves THAT FAST.
The scant forays we've made into institutionalized education (through dual credit courses, distance learning courses, and studying for the SAT) have done NOTHING to convince me that kids who regularly learn this way are actually learning anything at all.  Isn't that at least somewhat alarming?

Divergent Thinkers.  That's what we say we want.  But then we create and adhere to a system of teaching that doesn't allow for divergent thinking....doesn't even allow for a kid to prove that maybe her answer is correct, too - because there is an answer key and we must use it.  When Joel was little, he just didn't get it that there was a correct answer.  As in he just REALLY didn't get it.  Once, he was having a hard time with subtraction....and I became quite frustrated and I said....."You can't take 3 pencils away from 2 pencils!! You just can't?  Do you SEE 3 pencils here?  No.  You see 2.  So you can't take away 3 from 2."  Joel thought about this for some time and I was encouraged I was getting through to him. 

"Wait a minute, Mom," he said.  "I'll be right back."  He left the room.  He came back.  He handed me a pencil and he said, "Now we have 3 pencils.  You can always find another pencil.  NOW you can take 3 pencils away, Mom. It seems important to you."

I'm sorry - but am I the only one who thinks this kid is a freaking genius?  When we have a Big Huge Problem, really - isn't it the guy who's going to go out and find that third pencil....isn't he the guy who's going to save the day?

Kids are naturally divergent thinkers.  If you set up some parameters for them, you know, tell them the rules, they're always going to find a way to bend those rules or twist them or stretch them....and this is a GOOD thing - a thing to be rewarded.  Yet, all we push is the one right answer.
On our elementary Odyssey of the Mind team, I have kids who regularly bend the rules to their advantage.  Once we were sitting in a circle (very schoolish of me) and each kid had to offer a suggestion or solution to something, I don't even remember what it was.  And Emma was my most enthusiastic answer-giver, literally busting a gut and jumping up and down and even god-forbid raising her hand because she just had so much to say.  Some of the other kids?  Not so much.  To keep Emma from dominating and drowning out the smaller voices, I told them they had to take turns and they had to go in order.  I had some concerns Emma might actually rupture something while she waited....but it was a risk I was willing to take. 

As soon as Emma finished with her turn, she turned to the timid kid next to her and said, "Want to trade places?"  And that was how Emma managed to squeak out four or five more answers.  The other kids thought it was funny (it was) and willingly traded places with her repeatedly. I let her do it because guess what?  It was a pretty smart thing to do. She had answers....she was being forced to take turns....she just made sure she got the next turn...and the next....I told her she was super witty and smart and brilliant (she is) but then asked her if she thought it was fair to the other kids, even the ones who didn't think they had answers, and she decided it wasn't and then she stopped.  But in her mind?  She solved a problem for herself.  And she'll do it again.  Because nobody told her not to.

So we continue to scratch our heads.  We continue to question the causes of the apparent loss of ingenuity in our between telling them to stop talking to each wait their turns....that there's only one correct answer unless you're currently at your school's Odyssey of the Mind meeting, where it is okay to think outside the box as long as you don't start thinking you can do it everywhere.  And we wonder and wonder and wonder....what are we doing wrong? After all, we're teaching them to read in pre-school now....


  1. I'm pretty sure I agree with you. I mean, I'm kinda sure. I paid someone $5.00 to read it and give me the gist of it. See how clever I am. Emma got nothing on me. Also, the joke around the house is that I "don't even know how to do third grade math". It's actually true. When Johnny was in 3rd grade, I had no idea what they were asking. I would shoot emails to the teacher at least twice a week. But I knew what I was doing by 4th grade.
    Your Friend, m.

  2. An amazing post, very well articulated.

    I have passed it on to a few friends.

    My version of shouting from the rooftops.

    LOVE the pencil thing. Yeah, he's a genius. Absolutely.

  3. Awesome post! My kids were unschooled from the ages of 10 and 13 which is when I finally saw the light and decided to homeschool. The best decision we ever made! The kids are grown now and I even have a granddaughter, three months old today. I sent the post to my daughter to read.

  4. Acid Rain!!!!! "It seems important to you." So glad you commented on one of my posts eons ago because I love reading yours. I would home-school but then it would take away time from blogging. JOKE.

  5. Mark has suggested I respond to comments. Basically - it makes it look like I get more comments. Also? It is supposed to encourage other comments. So now I'm going to respond to comments (seperately to boost my comment count). Here goes: @ Mark - seriously? you only pay $5 to have my posts explained? that is at least a $10 job. In fact, you should pay by the word.

  6. Ami - I agree. It was an amazing and well articulated post.

  7. Portia - Awww...congrats on the grandbaby.

  8. Dinster - it is important to keep those priorities in order! Keep blogging my fellow Froosh fan.

  9. Hi Sardine Mama, I agree that this is a wonderful, well-articulated post. My kids are still in preschool (4 & 2 years-old) and I'm already dreading the MCAS testing they'll face in public school.

    I'm also writing to tell you that you won the cookbook contest on my blog (! I tried emailing you through your profile link, but for some reason can't access your email address. Send me your mailing address at and you'll have a copy of the Happy Herbivore winging its way to you.

  10. This may be off-topic for this blog post, or shall I say, out of the box instead? But when I respond to comments on my blog, then I think (later) that actually more people have commented and go back to look at who left all those comments and see it was just me, I'm disappointed. Just giving you fair warning.

    Actually, the topic of public education is depressing. Especially here in Texas, which already undervalues public education so severely. Austin (my son) thinks that the only way to make some kids value education is to take it away -- to no longer make it free, or easy to obtain. Obviously there are some major problems with that line of thought, but it is discouraging to see kids so apathetic about learning anything in school. To say nothing of the problems with the whole public education method of teaching. Kids who are highly motivated and want to learn will do so, even in difficult circumstances. It's everybody else I worry about.

  11. LOL Julie - I love commenting on my own blog and upping my tally :). I'm shameless that way. If I do it enough, I might catch up with Mark one of these days.