Classroom Environment Part 4: No “Right” Answer

When Inquiry By Design works with schools and districts for the first time, we take teachers through a series of “as learner” curriculum institutes where they work through the texts and materials as their students will in the classroom. We find it to be not only the most effective, but also the most enjoyable way, for teachers to gain a solid understanding of the content and instructional moves.

Teachers experience close reading strategies with rich, complex texts. They cycle through several brief rounds of comprehension tasks that require them to re-read and return to the text multiple times, delving deeper with each re-visit. They work individually, in pairs, and in small groups. The work always leads to a whole-group (or “class”) discussion where we get to share, discuss, challenge, and build our ideas about the text through an interpretive question.

These discussions are always engaging because naturally, as English teachers, we like talking about literature. As the facilitator, I’m careful to model the role of the teacher by staying out of the discussion for the most part. I remind participants of our discussion norms, offer sentence starters, and restate the interpretive question. I occasionally remind them to refer to the text to support their answers, invite anyone who hasn’t spoken to jump in, and let them know how much time they have left. Other than that, I quietly take notes about the claims I hear emerging from the conversation.

At the end of the discussion participants have an opportunity to note any new, additional, or changed thinking around the question. We have created a body of work that will now culminate in a written text-based argument. It’s usually somewhere during the whole-group discussion or just prior to drafting our arguments that at least one teacher will ask,

 

“But when do you give them the right answer?”

 

It doesn’t always happen, but I’d say 3 times out of 5, the question does come up. I understand the question because for many years I understood my role as a teacher to be “the one with the right answer…the correct understanding of the text…the person who, after making you do a bunch of meaningless work will simply tell you what’s important and what you need to know about The Merchant of Venice (or whatever).”

I usually throw the question back out to the group.

“Well that’s an interesting question. What IS the right answer?”

And then I just look at the pages of chart paper full of possible responses generated by our discussion. If there were a “right” answer, surely we, as English teachers, would have stumbled upon it. Some claims are certainly stronger than others, in that there is more in the text to support them, but a literary text that offers one right answer is not a text worth teaching, or reading, or discussing. If we end up with one “right” answer, then we’ve either chosen the wrong text or asked the wrong question.

In his article “Toward Thoughtful Curriculum: Fostering Discipline-Based Conversation,” Arthur Applebee reflects on this current educational dichotomy. We say we want students to arrive at new understandings, to think for themselves, and to become independent knowers and doers, while still teaching in the style of “one right answer.” He quotes Brett, a high-school student of Contemporary Literature:

…She wanted us to figure it out so she asked us questions about it. I didn’t really enjoy it that much, because it seems like most of the teachers know the answer they are looking for and then they will sort of hint up to that answer and they won’t be satisfied until they get that answer, even though they are trying to make us think for ourselves. It is odd like that.

“Odd” and not very inviting. An intellectually inviting ELA classroom is a classroom where we have relinquished “the right answer” and where we embrace texts as tools that allow us to explore ideas from all angles.

Applebee, A. N. (1994). Toward thoughtful curriculum: Fostering discipline-based conversation in the English language arts classroom. English Journal, 83(3), 45-52.


Check out the other posts in this series!

Classroom Environment – Part 1
Classroom Environment – Part 2
Classroom Environment – Part 3
Classroom Environment – Part 4