• The Right Answer

    Part of the problem that I saw when teaching was students desire to ‘get the right answer’.  Instead of asking if they did the calculation or experiment correctly, they would ask if they got the right answer.  We’ve been training generations of kids that there is one and only one right answer to there issues.

    I would often reply, “Did you do the process correctly?”  If they answered ‘yes’, then I would say “you probably got the right answer then.”

    There is a good reason for this.  In general, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, we are teaching things that are not ambiguous.  We are teaching content.  We have to get some knowledge into their heads before we can start asking tough questions (up to a point).  The problem is that we stop at the content and forget to start teaching them about tough questions.

    If I asked my boss, “Did I get the right answer?” She would reply, “If I knew that, I wouldn’t need you.”

    In my work (and I think, a lot of people’s work), we do the best we can with the knowledge we have.  There is no right answer.  We are given some tools and some time and a bunch of specifications that are contradictory, mutually exclusive, and/or otherwise impossible to meet and we do the best we can.

    I am reminded of the engineer’s slogan.  “On time, under budget, works.  Pick two.”

    There’s all these trade-offs in our work, in our lives, that don’t have correct answers.  Should you have a child?  Where do I donate a couple of spare dollars?  Do I buy this car or that car?

    And that’s where we are failing kids today.

    My boss likes to say that content is dead.

    What he means (yes, I have a number of ‘bosses’, welcome to corporate America) is that anyone with a phone and an internet connection can find out any content in minutes.  Just reading a Wikipedia article, we can learn more about Physics than Einstein ever knew.  We can learn more about history or literature than anyone, even 20 years ago, could imagine.

    The problem is, can we synthesize that content knowledge?  Can we understand it?  Can we evaluate if that knowledge is valid or not?  Can we evaluate the sources of that knowledge for veracity?  Can we compare and contrast pieces of knowledge to come up with a whole?

    These are the kinds of critical skills that people need and very, very few actually have.  It really boils down to skepticism… and we don’t do a good job of teaching that.

    And yes, we can teach that and we can do so at an early age even without in depth content knowledge already present.

    As a side note, a lot of very influential people are beginning to realize this.  The standards developed over the last few years have massively changed focus from content to skills, including a lot of reasoning and critical thinking skills.


    Category: EducationResearchSkepticism


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat