Many classrooms today consist of teachers correcting students in an attempt to teach them the “right” answer. Whether it’s 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.
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’s just not the case; they’re applying logic based on their own limited understanding of the world around them to answer the problem or question. Take two common misconceptions shared among many elementary schoolers:
One common misconception is that the world is flat. Students may recall a trip to the beach, where the wide view of the horizon looked flat for as far as the eye can see. Or they may figure that if the earth weren’t flat, then we’d all fall off the face of the earth. And can we blame young students for coming to this conclusion? It’s what scientists assumed for hundreds of years!
Another common misconception among elementary-aged students is that whales are a type of fish. They’ve got tails and fins like fish, and they live in the ocean like fish. So if it walks like a fish and talks like a fish, it must be a fish, right? For young students, that seems like the logical conclusion.
With so much focus on testing and choosing between right and wrong answers, it’s 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. Consider a study conducted by Philip M. Sadler and Gerhard Sonnert. The researchers gave science teachers a questionnaire that asked them to guess the right answer to a science question, and then to guess which of the wrong answers most students assumed was correct. The researchers found that in classrooms where the teacher correctly guessed the most common wrong answer — which showed that the teacher understood common student misconceptions — larger learning gains were made by the end of the school year.
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’re shown the logic behind why their answer is wrong, they’re more likely to accept the right answer. In other words, they don’t have to just take their teacher’s word for it. As the Sadler told NPR, “It’s very expensive in terms of mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself. It’s a big investment to say, ‘I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me and believe what the book or the teacher says instead.'” When students get answers wrong, it presents a wonderful opportunity for teaching. For example, when a teacher understands that a student thinks the earth must be flat because we’d otherwise fall off, then the teacher knows to explain the right answer — that the earth is round — in terms of the concept of gravity. Or when a teacher understands that a student thinks a whale is a fish because it looks and acts like a fish, the teacher knows to emphasize how whales are actually different from fish, like how they give birth to live young or breathe in air through their blowholes.
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. Sadler calls this the “socratic” method of teaching. Writing at Edupedia editor Rebecca Alber suggests that teachers model a think-aloud strategy to students during lessons. 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 a teacher’s tone of voice 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.
Higher Education often emphasizes that students must “show their work,” instead of just supplying the answer. We understand that doing so is crucial for connecting teacher/student logic paths. 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.