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Defeating the "one-right-answer" mentality

Like most Americans, I am thoroughly disgusted with the politics surrounding budget talks at both the federal and state level. While common sense seems to dictate both spending cuts and tax increases will be needed to put most governments back on some sort of sustainable path and not leave increasingly larger financial messes for our kids and grandkids to clean up, our politicos on both sides seem to want only "one right answer" with no compromise or creativity in sight.

To what extent is our educational system complicit in this mentality?

I reflected on the little game I played with the grandsons on our recent road trip to the Black Hills last week:

We bought a set of Grade One Brain Quest cards to play with while driving - simple short answer trivia questions that Miles was not interested in and Paul found way too simple. So we invented a new game. Answer the question with a defensible answer that was not the one given as correct. For example: What makes the ground white when it falls from the sky? Given answer: snow. Our challenge answers: sleet, hail, frozen ground fog, flower petals, etc. (My daughter was surprised bird poop wasn't mentioned.)

I thought this was a wonderfully subversive thing for a grandfather to teach his grandsons - challenge the common "right answer." I hope Paul and Miles remember this and defend their own "correct" answers when they don't agree with the one in the text book, answer key to the test, or teacher's worksheet key. If they get a chance.

I get tickled when classroom teachers actually encourage this sort of thinking. One of my most memorable examples was my own chemistry teacher who required that in order to get an A in the class, one needed to find an error in the textbook and offer proof why it was wrong. A history teacher in one of our high schools asks students to make a correction to a Wikipedia entry that stays in place for at least two weeks. Formal debate should be a required class for all students.

One of my earliest columns (1995) was titled "Embracing Ambiguity." It began:

As a teacher, I can construct activities which either discourage or invite ambiguity in my classroom.

Let’s say my class is studying camels. If I want predictability, I would ask my class to fill out a worksheet based on information found in a textbook or taken from my lecture. The worksheet even has exactly three blanks to match the exact information for which I’m looking from my students. Easy to correct, easy to measure, done by every student in a set amount of time. My class stays in the secure world of answers I’ve determined to be right or wrong.

Let’s change the assignment a little. I will narrow the topic and ask my students to answer the question, ‘What allows camels to survive in the desert?” And this time instead of sending them to the textbook or lecture notes, they’ll head to the media center with a blank paper instead of a paper with blanks. Students might use print and electronic encyclopedias, a variety of books, the Internet, magazines, filmstrips, and phone calls to local experts.

What happens? Some students come back with a dozen facts; some with only one or two or none. Some facts are relevant; some are not. Some kids are done in 10 minutes; some need all hour. We’ve left “right” and “wrong” answers behind, and responses now are subject to interpretation, evaluation, and categorization. Now who decides what constitutes a correct answer? Hopefully, it’s not the text nor teacher, but the students themselves as a result of discussion.

It takes a special teacher to create a classroom like the second one which doesn’t just accept ambiguity and the open ended discussion it engenders, but embraces it. Some of us have been lucky enough to have had those teachers Their discussions may have been about the interpretation of poem, an incident in history, or a contradiction in science, and they didn’t end when the bell rang - excited students carried the talk into the hallways, lunchrooms and all the way home on the bus.

Ambiguity, creative thinking, challenging the " one correct answer" mindset is more important than ever. If all educators took the multiple solution approach, might our next generation of leaders be more successful in solving our problems? (I have no hope for the current crop.)

Oh, embracing ambiguity and lots of correct answers is not a bad attribute of educational leaders either.

May you all have an ambiguous start to your school year.

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Reader Comments (7)

I agree with the premise of your post, and I often try to encourage teachers to come up with projects for which there is no one correct answer-- i.e. what makes a country a good place to live?
But from a political standpoint, I take issue with your premise that politicians on both sides are unwilling to compromise. I know you're trying to be PC and not offend any of your readers, but the Democrats have already shown they are willing to make huge cuts in federal spending,but also want to bring in some forms of new revenue. It's the Republicans for the most part who are absolutely unwilling to compromise, wanting to solve the "debt crisis" by cutting spending only, without doing anything to bring in new forms of revenue.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLibraryguy from CT

Great post!
I'm not sure whether switching to this pedagogy will ultimately lead to better leaders, but it certainly will create students who think for themselves, and ultimately are a more informed electorate!
Many of the people in our circles have been advocating the position lately that "college isn't for everybody." Part of me understands the arguments from a cost stand-point, but part of me looks around at the climate today and thinks that it would be much better if only EVERYONE had a liberal arts education. Maybe "embracing ambiguity" is at least a step in the right direction.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM. Walker

I love this post! This goes right along with teaching students to become media literate citizens and question everything that is put in front of them. Not necessarily to become cynical, but to look at every angle and come up with a deeper understanding of the world around them. It's very exciting to show students a different perspective than the obvious and observe the "aha" moments.

August 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commentershelly

Great post, Doug, and glad to see you are encouraging your grandkids to be subversive :)

I'm a newly qualified librarian and was quite surprised during my early information literacy tutorials when I asked students to evaluate online information. So many of the pupils asked me, "But which one is the right answer?" and "What do you want me say?" It took awhile for them to become comfortable with the concept of "multiple answers" (and for me to come up with clear ways of explaining the concept), but it eventually led to some great conversations.

Looking forward to hearing how others are embracing ambiguity this term!

August 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Hi LibraryGuy,

I would tend to agree with your assessment except I thought the Democrats were as dug in on reforming entitlement programs as Republicans were on no tax increase. I think they are ALL butt heads, personally.


Thanks, M. Walker.

The college or no questions is an interesting one. I sometimes think college should be for everyone - not necessarily as a career move, but for expanding one's world views - but at different times in individual's lives. I've always said that education is wasted on the young!

Thanks for the comment,


Hi Shelly,

Thanks for the kind words. Media literacy, with the rise of the overtly politically biased news sources, is more important than ever. Deeper understanding (or confusion at a higher level) is indeed the goal\.


Thanks, Erin. Good luck with your new career!


August 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I agree that you must include critical thinking. In teaching practical nursing students I constantly stress the importance of critical thinking so they can do full assessments and think of al things that could effect a persons health and disease process and care. There is always one "best" correct answer on the the NCLEX exam that nurses take to obtain a license to practice as a nurse but they must employ critical thinking to arrive at the best correct answer also.

September 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDoris Shuster

Thank you, Doris. I hope all my nurses get good teachers like you in nursing school!


September 25, 2015 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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