Tip for Teachers: “Wrong” Answers Are the Ones That Deepen Learning

By Shannon Pretorius

You ask your class a question, expecting a particular answer. You planned for that answer, but the students’ responses are completely different from what you anticipated. What do you do?

Too many times, I’ve seen teachers barely acknowledge the unexpected answers and say something like, “No, that’s not what I was looking for.” Which leaves me wondering…

Why is the answer you were looking for the only one that can be acknowledged?

Teaching requires making on-the-spot adjustments and thinking on your feet. This means that you have a plan, but you also have to plan for being flexible. When you ask a question, instead of listening for one right answer, listen to understand why a student chose the answer they did. Flexible thinking comes from having an open mind, a strong understanding of the content, and knowing the purpose for each question you ask.

There’s a reason a student gives a particular response. It’s your job to figure out what that reason is. That answer tells you something. It sheds light on a misconception or it tells you the student is beginning to understand at the surface level but isn’t quite where he/she needs to be yet.

Let’s say you’ve asked, “What do we call the person who draws the pictures for a book?” and a student says, “Author.” A quick acknowledgement that the author is the person who writes the story would take 2.5 seconds. Once you’ve clarified that, is the student then able to tell you it is the illustrator who draws the pictures?

The answer that you weren’t looking for is the answer you need to be looking for

Intentional listening is what will help students master the standard. When a teacher asks a question and then breezes over all answers that aren’t what he/she planned for, students learn one thing: that they shouldn’t try to answer unless they know exactly what the teacher is looking for.

Teaching is not about getting students to say what you want to hear; it’s about listening to what students say and asking yourself why they said that.

You may be thinking that there isn’t enough time in the day to address every answer to every question posed, and that stopping to interview each student will disrupt the flow of the lesson. You may also be thinking that sometimes there is a right answer and other answers will be wrong! I’m not suggesting that you spend 20 minutes philosophizing about each answer offered. I’m suggesting that the answer given provides you with information about the learner.

Example Question: “Why don’t people float above the ground?”

You’re looking for someone to say, “Gravity,” but instead, students respond with things like:

  • “We’re too heavy to float.”
  • “We don’t have wings.”
  • “We aren’t filled with helium.”

What can you gain from each student’s understanding when you tune in to those responses?

We’re too heavy to float. This student could be on the right track. Follow up with asking them to clarify what they mean by that.

We don’t have wings. Is the student thinking of ways to float above land? Can you point out that birds have wings, but they can still walk on the ground without floating? Does that help them think about the question in another way? Maybe they will get closer to the answer after that seven-second conversation.

We aren’t filled with helium. This is a true statement that also comes with a basic understanding of helium. Acknowledgement of that takes 1.8 seconds.

Did you ask a bad question? Was your purpose to see what students already know about the effects of gravity? If so, you learned important information from these three responses, and your response back told the students something really important about your class:

Ideas are welcomed, this is a safe place to try, and I value your thinking.

Now you can make a thoughtful decision about how to proceed. Some teachers would start offering hints. Some would get frustrated that people are not coming up with the right answer and say something like, “Come on you guys, you learned this last year!” Others would realize that the vocabulary you are trying to elicit may not be there yet and use that as the point of instruction.

When you thoughtfully plan questions to ask, you need to be prepared to thoughtfully consider the reasons for the answers students give. Questioning students has a purpose, and so do their answers. Do not disregard them.

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As an LSI Staff Developer, Shannon brings 16 years of experience in education in both West Michigan and South Florida. She has taught in a self-contained setting for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities and in both pull-out and inclusion settings, servicing students with varying exceptionalities. Her passion is serving and supporting students with disabilities and promoting high expectations for all.

Connect with Shannon on LinkedIn: Shannon Pretorius

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