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When the right answer is ultimately wrong
By Mark Heintz
Mar 9, 2021

I was taught the right way to eat a Snickers bar in second grade. While I would like to tell you how to do it, I promised Mrs. Meadowcraft I would never tell, and out of my deep respect for her, I won’t. At seven years old, I felt special that I knew the right way to eat it and I was grateful for her sharing the secret. Obviously, as the years went on I knew it wasn’t really the right way, but it brought the class together and still makes me remember her every time I eat one. 

Teaching children a particular way to eat a special treat was pretty innocuous. I wasn’t graded on it nor was I required to eat it that way for the rest of my life. But now that I am in charge of my own class, I realize that I teach my students the right information and the right way to do something. For my subject — history — that is anything but innocent.

People want to know what happened in the past. They want to know that what they are learning is what really happened. Unfortunately, the world isn’t so simple. Events mean different things to different people, and people write and read in different ways. Consequently, teaching the truth or the right way is dangerous for it creates a narrative of a single story.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently puts, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

This type of thinking allows the person in charge to select the singular truth. And in this case, the teacher, the materials, or the textbook is the one making the truth

An Example

For a United States History course, a fairly common standard is to have students memorize some sort of fact. For example, all students will be able to state the date of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I know this standard is fairly simplistic, and it might be lumped in with other dates or key events. Nevertheless, the purpose of this type of standard is to have students know a foundational knowledge of history. I’m using history as an example, but this could be the case in most classes. Typically with a standard such as this, an assessment is created to demonstrate that students have memorized date to meet the standard. 

Unfortunately, focusing the assessment on the memorization of a date, in the case of Pearl Harbor, limits the scope of the event to when it happened. It negates everything that happened globally. It negates the relationship between Japan and the United States prior. It glosses over multiple perspectives and emphasizes the specific date.

And as Angela Y. Davis stated in Freedom is a Constant Struggle, “we need the broader global context to understand” (28). 

Focusing on the singular time frame rather than situating the event in the greater global context presents history as a single story narrative and leads to a fragmented understanding of the world. Furthermore, it simplifies World War II to a singular act of aggression. While most classes would allow for questions and hopefully a broader understanding of the event, when the assessment is memorization of a right answer, that will always remain the focus for the teacher and the student. 

All Too Often

This type of teaching and learning is all too often the approach to most classes in schools. If the assessment is to recall specific information, that is what will be asked more frequently by the teacher.  In one study, teachers ask on average sixty-four questions in a thirty minute period with over sixty percent of those questions being low-level memorization recall.  This process ends up limiting a student’s content knowledge when the focus is on simplistic recall and memorization because we fail to address the context. It is limiting because the students aren’t allowed to ask questions of the event because they had to write down the date and memorize it. They don’t focus on understanding the process and everything that goes into an event because they are so concerned with getting what will be assessed of them and what will be deemed right.

Some critics will say that we have to have them memorize it for them to learn it. However, at Lawrenceville School, “they asked their returning students to retake the exact same science final exams in September that they had previously taken in June. The average score of 87 in June became a 58 in September.” This type of reassessment has been replicated many times. While students might remember everything asked of them, it is often forgotten fairly quickly.  And even if it were to stick and we added as many facts as we felt were needed, it limits it to just those events and continues to be controlled by a single story.  

What isn’t included 

 

Information not asked to be memorized is implied as wrong. Linda Tuhiwai Smith in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples states.

“History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and ‘Othered’. In this sense history is not important for indigenous peoples because a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the ‘fact’ that indigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice.”

Linda Tuhiwai Smith states how history has been used to marginalize indiegnous people. However, the memorization approach to learning marginalizes everything not directly asked and the people who are represented. Students’ curiosity is stymied. They are told that what they want to know is less important. When there is a right answer, any probe into that process is a direct question to power and authority.

 

I have seen first hand how this type of teaching stifles curiosity in the classroom and leads to anxiety. In How Children Learn, when educators structure learning to have a right answer on an assessment, it increases anxiety and “severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied” (78). Also, students who question this simplistic memorization “not only insult and anger children but often confuse them enough to destroy some of what they have already learned. They may in fact know the answer to these questions. But they then think, “That answer couldn’t be right, it couldn’t be that easy, or they wouldn’t have asked me the question in the first place.” (137).  Students actually end up learning less. 

In The Book of Learning and Forgetting it says that

“all learners need structure–but that is structure in their own minds, not in the world around them.  You can’t learn something unless it makes sense to you, however much it might make sense to other people” (78).

When educators create standards of knowledge without taking into account who the student is and their life experience, students are treated as all having the same world view. Furthermore, students aren’t allowed time to process the information because there are so many facts for them to memorize. They aren’t allowed multiple perspectives or questions that entertain the idea that the knowledge presented is multifaceted.  

What do we do?

We as educators should want our students to want to learn more in an environment that is as free from anxiety or oppression as possible. To do that, students need to have access to multiple perspectives and the time to process the information. We need to allow for their questions. 

The students need to look at multiple perspectives and contexts because there are a variety of right answers. They have to be encouraged to analyze the perspectives to gain a greater understanding of the world around them. In the case of Pearl Harbor, there are many different perspectives on the event itself. Like stated earlier, memorizing negates the events leading up to the bombing. Instead of memorizing, the event could be looked at from Americans who lost loved ones in the bombing and compared to Japanese who lost loved ones. At the same time, the perspectives of the President of the United States and Emperor of Japan could be folded in. Afterwards, someone who identified as Japense-American could be added. Then, someone of German-American, Chinese-American, and British-American could be added. There are so many different single stories that could be and should be added. Approaching history in this manner doesn’t doesn’t erase a particular history or perspective, but rather allows for students to have a greater understanding of the event. 

They have to be able to know their own identity and how that influences their world view. From that, hopefully their curiosity and own interests will continue to grow and become the driver.  In the end, they will want to know more and end up knowing more. They will become a greater member of the course who is accepted for their wonders and own lived experience that can contribute to helping make sense of the world we live in. 

Gratitude

As always with these longer posts, thank you to Kim Miklusak for her editing and feedback along the way. This blog would not have happened without her friendship.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

 

 

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