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Constructivist classroom: Knowing the wrong answers, too
October 9, 2016, 12:16 pm

Many classrooms today consist of teachers correcting students in an attempt to teach them the ‘right’ answer. Whether it is fill-in-the-blank multiplication tables or multiple choice tests, the focus is simply on getting answers correct. But when teachers focus on students’ wrong answers, and the logic that the students applied to arrive at those answers, the amount of meaningful learning occurring in the classroom multiplies.

Focusing on the wrong answers may seem counterintuitive to many, but doing so helps teachers understand the disconnect between the right answer and students’ common misconceptions. Talking through wrong answers has the incredible ability to make teachers better educators and students less frustrated and more receptive to the mountains of new information presented in the classroom. In short, understanding the ‘wrong’ answers leads to learning that lasts.

How common misconceptions and ‘wrong’ answers arise: A central part of human nature is seeking explanations for the unknown, based on what we do know. We crave understanding. While it may seem like students often pull wrong answers out of thin air, that is just not the case; they are applying logic based on their own limited understanding of the world around them to answer the problem or question.

Importance of understanding student logic: With so much focus on testing and choosing between right and wrong answers, it is tempting for teachers to simply correct a student’s wrong assumption and move on — “No, the earth is round,” or “No, whales are mammals.” But research strongly suggests that when teachers take the time to understand their students’ faulty logic, larger gains in learning are made.

Why it is okay to be wrong: Why does a teacher’s understanding of how students arrive at wrong answers matter so much to learning? Because students are actually logical creatures, and when they are shown the logic behind why their answer is wrong, they are more likely to accept the right answer. In other words, they do not have to just take their teacher’s word for it.

Leading students from the wrong to right answers: To help students arrive at right answers themselves, the classroom must become a safe space for exploration. Instead of focusing on drills and rote memorization, or just shooting down ‘wrong’ answers, teachers should foster open-ended discussion among students. For instance, instead of telling students “this means …,” teachers can ask open ended questions that get the students thinking logically, like “How might …?” and “What if …?” Even the teacher’s tone can make a difference. Instead of taking an authoritative tone, a teacher may try matching the students’ sense of wonderment, thereby emphasizing that the students and the teacher are taking this journey of exploration and discovery in the classroom together.

A look at higher education: Higher Education often emphasizes that students must ‘show their work,’ instead of just supplying the answer. When a student shows how he or she arrived at an answer, teachers are then able to follow the student’s logic and pinpoint exactly where it falters if the student produces a wrong answer. “Show your work” really means “show your logic,” which opens up an opportunity for teachers to tweak student logic for learning that truly sticks.

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