I’m trying something different this year. A little experiment. I’m trying not to use the word “answers” this year. I will explain.
You see what I have noticed in my seven years of teaching is that kids have an interesting view of the word “answer”. They have associated the word with either right or wrong, good or bad. That’s obvious, because answers are either right or wrong. Right? What if an answer was written as a question? Does that mean there are right and wrong questions? What if it is written as a prediction? There are right and wrong predictions, but even the best sports analysts get predictions wrong, yet no one faults them, because a prediction is an educated guess. Why would we fault our kids for an educated guess?
If I tell a student, “Thanks! Your answers look good” then that student walks away with an understanding of the word “answers”: my answers look good, and the opposite of good is bad, so answers are either good or bad. This can really instill some anxiety in kids, making them feel unsure about being called on to answer a question or give input, or they can begin to second guess themselves. Now the word “answer” has become an enemy of the student, even if they answer correctly.
I’m reading Dr. Dave Schmitto’s book, Making Assessment Work, and it’s been giving me a lot to think about. I haven’t quite finished it, so I hope I’m not plagiarizing anything; it’s just given me a lot to think about, especially with this idea of answers. Is there a better word? Is there better language than a word associated with good/bad? I think there are a few options.
What if, instead of asking students to show their answers, we asked them to show their findings or discoveries? This communicates that you are interested in the work that they did. Asking a student to show their findings communications that you know they worked hard and are presenting, not a right or wrong answer, but the things that they learned through their work. This, obviously works well for all subjects, but especially subjects like social studies, science, and language arts, as these subjects often call for research, citation of evidence, and explanations.
If you’re teaching math, use the actual language correctly. The difference isn’t just the answer to a subtraction problem, it’s the difference (one year a student referred to it as the “distance” or the “space”) between two amounts. Don’t ask for answers, ask for the sum, the product, the difference, or the quotient, using them in their correct form. Take it a little further. What if we asked students to show us data instead of answers? What if we congratulated them for presenting the information they discovered in the real world problem instead of just a final answer?
When a person writes, they let you into their world. I don’t care if it’s fiction or non-fiction, a person shows a huge part of themselves through writing. So when a student writes, don’t diminish what they wrote by limiting their response to either a right or wrong answer. Try this: Thanks for letting me read your writing. I enjoyed reading your ideas. It’s little things like that that will go a long way to encouraging and motivating students.
Which is what it’s all about, right? Developing life long learners. True learners, not just an Ask-Google-Learner. We want learners who explore, experiment, ask questions, present information, and expand their thinking. We don’t want students who just ramble off…(sigh)…answers. No one learned through a worksheet. All worksheets do is create the good/bad, right/wrong answer mindset in a students head, when learning is supposed to more than just finding a right answer. It’s a process. It’s about discovery.
One other thing to consider. When students ask you a question, they are looking for an answer. They essentially want you to be their Google or Siri. It’s tempting to give the answer right away, but don’t waste a learning opportunity. Encourage the class to search their question and do the research. Let them discover for themselves.
I’m not faulting anyone who uses the word “answer”. I don’t know that there is necessarily anything wrong with using that word, but I’d ask you to consider what message that sends to the child and what they will associate that word with. Try it for yourself, because I’m no expert; I’m just a teacher with questions looking for…understanding.