Text Book Answers

When did we start teaching students that their sole job is to “find the right answer” and that the world is a conglomerate of right and wrong answers?

 Often, when I pose a question to a class, the response of students is to immediately thumb through their notes and text searching for “the answer”.  It’s almost like they are afraid to explore within their own minds for understanding.  Sometimes I have to state, “You can’t find the answer.  I want you to use what you know and come up with your own thoughts on this idea” before the students will peel their eyes away from the written words before them.  Furthermore, students are satisfied to simply regurgitate a sentence from the text in response to a question, unconcerned with comprehension of the words they speak/write. 

 At what point did we sanction this state of mind: that life is about finding the answer and when you find it you just have to spit it out, without thought or reason.

 Despite my attempt to model and foster critical thinking, students remain stuck in the desire to have the information just handed to them. Pushing them to dig deeper seems to be a daily pursuit of mine.

Many of the texts we utilize, including the IB Biology book that my students use, contain answers to problems and exercises at the back of the book.  Or, students can search for solution manuals online. Thus, when we, as teachers, attempt to employ pre-written questions to offer students additional practice, some students are immediately turning to the solutions before struggling with the content themselves.  Often the solutions omit pieces of necessary thought process and occasionally are actually incorrect, leaving students more confused than if they hadn’t even consulted the answers to begin with.  More importantly, the student has abandoned an attempt to think critically and is left without having experienced the path of discovery ultimately forfeiting true learning.

 Most IB schools offer a mock exam experience for the seniors to help them prepare for the May exams (beginning this coming Monday!).  For Biology there are three papers that each student must write.  Some students will note the year and time zone of Paper 1 and then search for the answer key for Papers 2 and 3 before sitting those exams.   Of course, they aren’t considering that this practice actually makes them less prepared for the exams that will count.  The drive to “be right” is so great that students are willing to sacrifice their own learning experience to get there.

Students are missing out on the satisfaction of accomplishment and are not learning how to learn or how to problem solve.  What is that going to look like in the real world?  No one cares about “the answers” – the only thing that matters is whether you can do your job.

 Lisa Mabe, a director of Early Childhood education quoted Linda Elder writing,

“Children’s minds are a precious resource. Yet, too often, inquiring minds (Ask me! Ask me! Ask me!) are transformed by 4th or 5th grade into passive, non-questioning minds (Why are you asking me? Is this going to be on the test?).” (1)

 Lisa, arguing that even very young children are capable of critical thinking, ends her article with a plea,

“We as educators must give [students] the proper tools to have quality thinking. We must prepare them to be able to ask good questions, to identify problems in thinking as they analyze concepts, and be able to correct the problems that they find. We must do more to prepare children for the world they live in. We must prepare them for the future.” (1)

Years ago when I began my parenting journey I remember reading an article about the importance of not “quizzing” young children (i.e. ‘what color is this?’, ‘what letter is that?”, etc.) because it teaches them that the world is all about right and wrong answers and it can generate anxiety and insecurities as children begin to fear being wrong.  I have no reference, as that was 15+ years ago, however, at the time it made sense to me.  Now I wonder if critical thinking is so difficult to extract, partly because we train it away at a very young age, when children are first learning to talk and discover the world around them.

 How do you think we can guide students, even young children, to develop critical thinking?