The Answer-Driven Culture

The new emphasis on high-stakes standardized exams has changed the culture of schools -- it is now overwhelmingly answer-driven. Why?
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How much attention do you pay to the quality of questions? Do you cringe at some of the questions broadcast journalists ask in interviews? Have you ever become impatient with questions from children that are asked even when the answers are obvious? One way to evaluate a teacher is to see how he or she fields a question from children. But I'll get to that later.

I've just finished reading Kerrie Logan Holliman's Isaac Newton and Physics for Kids. What impressed me most about Newton, in this meticulously researched and very accessible narrative of an extraordinary man, is that he filled a notebook with questions when he was young. These questions became the basis of his life's work leading him through mathematics (and the invention of calculus), mechanic, optics, chemistry, astronomy and more. Some of the questions might seem dumb to the average observer:

Why do things always fall down?
Why doesn't the moon fall down onto the earth?
How fast does a cannonball fly before it starts to fall to earth?

The new emphasis on high-stakes standardized exams has changed the culture of schools -- it is now overwhelmingly answer-driven. Why? Teachers and students are not thinking about questions as much as seeking answers so that they can perform well on tests. The emphasis is on giving the correct response, not thinking about the material. Here's one personal example: When meeting with two young teachers to plan a unit on the solar system, I opened the conversation by asking, "So how do we know about the solar system?" The teachers looked at each other, frightened. I knew they were thinking "What's the right answer to this question? What is she looking for?" So to take them off the hook, I made the question rhetorical and answered it myself, "We look at the sky." Then I asked a follow-up question "And what do we see in the sky?" Again they were flummoxed, mute. "The sun?" one teacher finally responded tentatively. Here were teachers paralyzed with fear because they experienced an inquiry-driven conversation as if it were an exam. Not good. (I tried this conversation with some young children and they engaged spontaneously and joyfully.) The fear of making a mistake and giving an incorrect answer is not a way to foster learning at any level. Brainstorming -- fearlessly contributing ideas no matter how off-the-wall -- leads to creativity.

What happens to inquiry when a teacher gives a quick and correct answer to a student? The student is satisfied and goes away. The inquiry shuts down. This is the total opposite of the Socratic method of teaching, which is still the gold standard for producing learning. Thoughtful responses to questions depend a lot on the question itself. Really good questions generate thinking. Children need to be trained to listen carefully to questions so that they can be responsive to them. If you ask a group of kindergarteners if there are any questions, you will often get them "sharing" a story. The Common Core State Standards includes listening and speaking as two skills that must be practiced so that children understand how to respond appropriately to a question.

So if you want to take the measure of a teacher here are some things to look for:

•In response to a student's question for information does the teacher give the answer, or does the teacher respond with a question of her own?

•When the teacher asks a question of the class that involves a concept does he allow a choral response to engage all children in the conversation or does he pick one kid to give the answer as a surrogate for the group? Note, in an inquiry-driven conversation with a group of students, I ask questions and ask them to say what they think without raising their hands. It keeps them all engaged. Naturally the questions are carefully crafted so the sequence leads to a concept.

•Does the teacher ask questions that require real thinking on the part of the student? Or are they leading questions that give away the appropriate response? (Leading questions emphasize that the correct answer is more important than thinking.)

It seems that some of the powers-that-be for the CCSS have decided that the most important element in student learning is the classroom teacher. Really? How do they know this? Oh, yes. By testing the kids with standardized exam bubbles. Many private schools don't test extensively. Is it possible to compare these students with public school students? Very difficult, according to one report. Are we getting any meaningful data from all these tests? What effect does testing have on the culture of the school? Hmmm... this brings me back to the title of this about "trickle down."

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