Monday, 13 October 2014

How "interesting" blunts pupils' interest

Teacher: "What's 9 times 7?"
Pupil A: "56."
Teacher: "That's an interesting answer.  Has anyone got a different answer?  What's 9 times 7?"
Pupil B: "63."
Teacher: "Yes, 63.  Well done."

Here the initial problem is that interesting comes to mean wrong.  There's a reluctance to use the word "wrong" in schools.  It's like putting crosses next to pupils' written answers, or using a red pen (for anything).  But all of the alternatives we employ ("interesting", question marks, green pens) give the same message: "That's incorrect."  (Green pens will be banned from classrooms in five years - mark the date in your diary.)

And what's so wrong with letting pupils know they've got the wrong answer?  They will have already worked out that interesting means wrong and will have dealt with it, so it's not going to lead to lasting psychological damage (at least no more than any other aspect of everyday life in school does). 

The problem is that the wrong/right answer scenario 
1) tells you only who does or doesn't know a specific fact - as an assessment tool it's of very limited use;
2) challenges no one (you either know the answer or you don't) - it's a nonstarter in terms of demonstrating your high expectations;
3) disengages pupils and fosters a risk-averse climate in your classroom (wrong answers are dismissed, only correct answers praised).  How will you understand the needs of pupils if you don't know what they are struggling with?  (And I'd love to hear if anyone's ever been motivated by "That's the wrong answer, but well done for trying.")

Actually, using "interesting" (or question marks/crosses, red/green pens) isn't really the issue.  These assessment tools are perfectly suited to this pub quiz approach to questioning. You could swap "What's 9 times 7?" with any other closed question with a single correct answer: What shape is this?  What's the capital of France?  Which two atomic components combine to make water? Who wrote Moby Dick? The issue is that you've asked the wrong question.  Closed questions lead to wrong/right answers; wrong/right answers lead to disengagement.

So what could you ask instead?  
Instead of "What's 9 times 7?" you could ask "How many ways can we make 63?"
Instead of "What shape is this?" you could ask "What are the properties of this shape?"
Instead of "What's the capital of France?" you could ask "What can you tell me about Paris?"

And if you are set on asking closed questions, treat all of the answers you get (right or wrong) impartially (keep your elation/disappointment to yourself), record them (flip chart, white board) and then, collaboratively, investigate.  So when pupils  suggest  that 9 times 7 is 56 (or 61 or 63 or 72), you can follow up, model (drawing on pupils' ideas) why only one answer is correct, and deal with any misconceptions straight away.

Wouldn't that make for an interesting lesson?

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting article. Nice and practical, especially the last paragraph about recording students' answers, using them in feedback, etc. Works well. (EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia!) @KashifRealNews