Disrupting A Culture of One Right Answer
In my 17 years of teaching, I have come to understand one truism. Multiple choice questions WILL NOT, HAVE NOT and DO NOT give us rich information about student learning and growth. Period. Full Stop.
This epiphany has haunted me for years because of the countless multiple choice tests I gave, and the subsequent judgements I formed about a student’s abilities based on how they answered. I wish I could say…that was the way I was taught… so in my defense, I didn’t know any better...but that would be complete bullshit…and you might want to stop reading this blog, if you want me to play nice with schools still teaching students to regurgitate answers.
I knew better…
Truth is I knew better! I was once a student. I knew that multiple choice questions didn’t show my real understanding – and that I could easily manipulate, even sell my learning short, to meet the needs of a test. I knew that if a willing teacher might have asked me a question in a different way – my explanation of the event, or problem, would have been so much more illuminating and profound. So I knew! This is why the guilt started to get the best of me.
I knew instinctively using multiple choice questions to gather real insight about what my students knew, understood and could do – was not teaching and learning at its best. Sadly,I found countless reasons to ignore this fact. Maybe I used multiple choice questions to chase after an easy grade – but when I did – I settled. By my second year of teaching, I had developed a real passion for teaching and learning and it broke my heart to continue the facade. So, I stopped… or I tried to stop, but one big impasse stood in my way.
The status quo of school got in the way
Like a boulder blocking a mountain road, what stood in my way, was the status quo of school itself. The administration (district level admin) who wanted my grade level PLC (Personal Learning Community) to discuss every month how our students did comparatively on identical unit tests we administered in our classrooms. That meant, based on examining students answers on a multiple choice test, we could somehow grow as teachers and improve our instruction (it hurts me to even repeat this line of thinking). This was based on an underlying fallacy that all students learn in the same way – and that their chosen answers somehow gave us insight into our teaching abilities. In addition, there was always this pressure to have a lot of grades I could post in my gradebook, because as we went to online grades – parents equated the grades, and lots of them, with student success . There was also pressure to find a quick way to grade the work I had collected from 175 students in my five periods, pressure from the other teachers…and the list goes on and on. What should have mattered, however, was finding ways to make sure learning in my room was rich and informative.
Regurgitation does not equal real learning
Beyond the multiple choice questions and what they lack in information, lives one important and often neglected fact. Being able to regurgitate answers on a test does not equate itself with true understanding. To prove that fact, I gave my students a literary devices test one week and all but one of my students got an A. Yes! I must be a great teacher! I decided to do a pop quiz – using the same exact questions, 48 hours later – and only five of those students got the A again. Five more got a B and the rest moved down to a C with three F’s. Had I gone off of that original data point, I would have thought they all understood literary devices. I did the same thing with European capitals one week later and the results were truly devastating – but so empowering for me.
What I had always known was beginning to come to the surface. Students have to be able to apply the knowledge – to truly learn it. Brené Brown the author of Daring Greatly, quotes a proverb that illustrates this idea perfectly.
“Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”
It is only when we use our knowledge, in new an novel ways that it sticks. We do not accomplish this by asking kids to pick from four answer choices and bubble in their answer.
So now it is time to disrupt that culture in our classrooms – and start to change the focus of questioning as we know it in schools.
How students learn…
Students learn in the same way as scientists – by asking questions and then exploring to find the answers. They do it almost effortlessly until they enter school. It is at that point – that they start to seek out answers to questions they have NOT even asked. What happens to students as they enter school is that they learn that the answer is the pinnacle of knowing in classrooms. Warren Berger in his groundbreaking book “A More Beautiful Question” puts it best. “The problem is, as kids stop questioning, they simultaneously become less engaged with school. Citing a Newsweek magazine article “The Creativity Crisis” Berger details how a four year old will ask more than 100 questions a day, a statistic that will fall dramatically only one year later at age five, when the child enter school. Berger goes on to ask “Do kids stop questioning because they’ve lost interest in school, or do they lose interest in school because their natural curiosity (and propensity to question) is somehow tamped down?”
Ways to disrupt…
To teachers – make one goal in 2016 – find a way to all but eliminate multiple choice questions from your classrooms.
To help disrupt the role of questioning in schools – classes could start by having an essential question they are trying to answer – and then use the content students need to learn – to serve as the pathway for finding that answer. How empowering would it be to start a science class with this one essential question (recently posed by Mark Zuckerberg to his new daughter)… How can we end world hunger? Then use the scientific concepts they need to learn as a basis for finding the answers. It is in this exploration that students will actually learn the information best – as Confucius realized many centuries ago “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” Understanding should be the fundamental goal of our classroom instruction – not superficial familiarity with facts.
One of the thrills about being an educator in the 21st Century, is this ability to redefine the typical classroom landscape in this way – by allowing questions to lead instruction – not end it.
One of the greatest examples of this comes from a Mystery Skype and nine year olds. A Mystery Skype brings two classes together with each class developing a series of ‘educated’ questions to help them intelligently deduce the unknown location of the other school. In this scenario, kids get to apply and use geographical knowledge, critical thinking and the skill of questioning. Students might strategically ask the other school questions like: “Are you east or west of the Mississippi River?” or “Are you landlocked?” They continue this process until they have surmised the exact location of the other school. When I was a kid, I read about geographical concepts and places in a textbook, but I never got to apply that learning to a real world situation like students can do now via a Mystery Skype. I have been pushing educators to think beyond geographical-based Mystery Skypes and try applying this engaging collaboration tool to their own subject matter. What about mystery characters, mystery missions (for those of us in California) mystery historical characters, or even mystery scientific concepts?
Take multiple choice questions out of your repertoire…
If we do nothing else this year to become a disruptor…learning how to gradually take multiple choice questions out of assessments and finding more effective ways to gather rich information about student learning and growth should be first and foremost. Instead of asking students questions at the end of a story – allow students to come up with their own questions that would help them better understand the content. Have them connect with the author using Twitter or Skype sending out questions to the source of the prose – questions that would help fuel comprehension. Have students work in a group to ask questions that help uncover plots or narrative bias and then work together to find the answers to their own questions. This is already happening in beautiful ways in classrooms that use the Harkness method – sadly, schools that employ this method are generally reserved for students of families who can afford the high tuition.
From the Phillips Exeter Website: “The Harkness table, Harkness method, or Harkness discussion is a teaching and learning method involving students seated in a large, oval shape in order to discuss ideas in an encouraging, open-minded environment with only occasional or minimal teacher intervention.”
A good friend of mine attended Phillips Exeter and she told me that in high school the teacher would drop off 10 math problems/questions for the week and let the students collaboratively solve them together..and through the journey of solving those problems, they learned so much more about Math. For these students, knowledge was no longer a rumor it had made it to their muscle. All this learning happened, with very little help from the teacher.
Sidenote: Mark Zuckerberg attended Phillips Exeter. Do you want children or students with his questioning skills? Yeah, me too.
Shifting the focus of questions would allow students in all classrooms to have a similar experience – not just the ones who can afford schools like Phillips Exeter Academy.
Other places to find great resources to encourage better questioning
The Right Question Institute – Here you will find ideas teachers can use to help kids ask really great questions, become better questioners and more importantly learn how to ask them in ways that stimulate ownership of their learning.
There is a wealth of information out there – if you just simply ask your own questions. Start with “How can I make learning more powerful in my classroom?” and then go find the answer…let questions fuel your own learning – and you will better understand how changing the focus of questions can propel the constructive learning of your students.