Unimportance of the right answer

The ‘mistakes’ students make are wonderful windows through which to look into the working of their minds. Yet an appalling degree of impatience is built into our teaching systems.

Written by Jyotsna Vijapurkar | Updated: June 8, 2018 8:19:48 am
Unimportance of the right answer The attempt to find an answer is not only fun, but also the best part of learning.(Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty)

I would like the readers, as they start reading this article, to pause and think of something they had to learn — like riding a bike or cooking a dish, preparing their tax returns or learning a new song or tune, whatever. Take a minute to recall how many times you tried before you got it right; how you had to apply yourself. How you got something right and something wrong with each try.

Perhaps you needed support from a teacher/parent/colleague/friend/relative. You would perhaps have noticed that apart from whatever it was you learned, you also learned to learn. You may even remember all your efforts and trials and mistakes fondly. You may realise that that was really the fun part, not just the final triumph. This interest and engagement is the most intense during your attempt to master something. As long as it seems doable (and this is key), just out of reach but getting within reach with each trial, each thought, logical argument or helpful hint from someone, we remain engaged and enjoy the experience. There is a reason we do not go back to puzzles that we have already learned to solve — they are no longer engaging enough to go back to.

Now think of how things were in school (and are today). Did you get a chance to explore solutions to a problem? Was the teacher supportive or just telling you if you were right or wrong? More importantly, was the wrong answer dismissed? Worse, were you punished, reprimanded or ridiculed for it — all serving to create a dead end in the learning process? To say nothing of the embarrassment, resentment and shame you felt? Yet in lesson after lesson, in school after school, this is exactly what happens — the response to a wrong answer is dismissal or punishment.

The attempt to find an answer is not only fun, but also the best part of learning. It develops thinking, concentration, resilience, and perhaps even tells you something about yourself. In other words, the path to the solution is equally, if not more important than, the solution itself. Remove this, and concentrate on the solution alone, and you deprive the learner of a rich opportunity to explore all manner of things.

Not only the student, but the teacher too loses something valuable in such practice: An opportunity to learn the workings of the student’s mind — whether it’s a beautiful solution to a problem, something the teacher or textbook writer hadn’t thought of, or the reason the student did not get the solution right away. The “mistakes” students make are wonderful windows through which you can look into the workings of their minds, particularly with young students who may not be able to articulate whether or not they understood something.

As teachers, once we get an idea of how or what the student is thinking, we can incorporate these insights into our teaching. And in doing so, keep our teaching practice from becoming a tedious one — teaching the same lessons over and over again, in the same manner, even difficult ones that only a few students can really understand.

More often than not, this is exactly what happens at home too. Unfortunately, the culture of the school seems to have spread. There is in general, at school as well as home, an impatience to get the right answer out of our children. This is not how one supports learning. Learning, as those who have reflected on their own learning experiences will no doubt agree, takes time. It takes patience (both on the learner’s part, and the teacher’s). It even helps you develop patience with the task at hand, and with yourself. What an important life-skill, one that will serve you well for a long time.

Yet this level of patience is rarely to be seen in our teaching environments. Indeed, there is an appalling degree of impatience built into our system — such little time is allowed for designing new curricular content that there is rarely time for necessary field research, for deep deliberation or detailed field testing that should inform it; a staggering amount of material is crammed impatiently in one school year, which makes for tight teaching schedules, leaving teachers or students with no room to dwell on a concept; students are expected to come up with exact correct answers in immediate response to questions. All this to what end? That is a question we would do well to ask ourselves and attempt to answer with some patience.

After all, this is one place we cannot afford to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

The writer is on the faculty at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, a part of TIFR. Her research is on how science ought to be taught at the primary and middle school level

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