Why It’s Wrong To Obsess Over The Right Answer

by Haider on June 25, 2010 · 5 comments

in Intellectual, Parenting


“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
~ Mark Twain

Parents and teachers often have the greatest of intentions and genuine concern for their children’s well-being and education, but it is all too common for educators to take the wrong approach to education, which impedes learning rather than facilitate it.

Many of us carry psychological scars as a result of our schooling, which continue to our adulthood, without us ever consciously addressing these scars. We have come to accept that learning is difficult and is taxing on the brain, without realizing why that is.

One of the worst mistakes educators commit is obsessing over the right answer, rather than encourage independent thinking.

This isn’t to say that any answer is equally valid to any other, or that we all have unique answers based on unique perspectives. In many issues, there is a right answer and a heap of wrong answers.

But that’s not the point.

The point is, as human beings, we need to know how to use our brains for thinking, in the same way we learn how to use our legs for walking.

Being told to memorize answers, without knowing why they’re true, bypasses the thinking process, and sees the human brain as a storage house, with no cognitive apparatus that acts on and analyzes the information it stores.

But the human brain is a marvelous computer, not a hard drive.

It is crucial that we feel comfortable thinking for ourselves, without being afraid of making mistakes every now and then. And the more we refine our thinking, the fewer mistakes we are likely to make. In the same way an infant struggles to walk at first, and constantly falters during his initial attempts, then walks more and more steadily as he learns how to use his legs and body, we need to go through a similar learning process when it comes to the use of our rational faculty.

This learning should have come at an early age, but well-meaning educators were too concerned with filling our brains with information rather than encourage us to develop our own thinking.

It is impossible to develop understanding without knowing how to think. We can memorize information without too much mental processing. But understanding involves connecting bits of information together, and looking for consistency between them to form a bigger picture from all the smaller pieces. That involves thinking.

Understanding is an essential component to healthy living. It helps us make sense of daily events and allows us to reach conclusions based on the knowledge we already possess, thereby expanding our knowledge through mental effort. Trying to hold disconnected factoids about the world in our brains can become too taxing for our memory recall. Understanding helps us make our way from one piece of information to another, based on the connections that link them together and the context they share.

I usually don’t ask my students for the right answer. I ask them for an answer (any answer that conveys their understanding), and base my explanation on what they already understand (or what they have misunderstood). That way I respect their own thinking, but offer them guidance on where they went wrong and how they can reach the right answer. Some students feel too embarrassed to reveal their ignorance, or to give a wrong answer (a sign of bad education), and opt for a shrug of the shoulders or a blank: “I don’t know.”

Learning involves a great deal of mistakes, and there’s no reason to feel guilty or bad about making intellectual errors. We don’t learn by hiding our ignorance. We learn by revealing what we know, and being open to opportunities to improve our thinking. We should also encourage our children to think for themselves, rather than snap at them whenever they say something nonsensical.

For example, if your child came to you and said: “Pigs can fly!”

It’s not wise to reply: “You idiot! What made you think they can fly? Pigs can’t fly!”

A better approach would be to encourage your child to think for himself by asking thought-provoking questions and offering facts for him to consider: “How can pigs fly? They don’t have wings.”

If your child says: “They can use a rocket!” then his initial statement was right, and there’s no need to undermine his creative thinking process. That’s a mark of intelligence, not wild imagination, because he considered an alternative way to flying that doesn’t involve wings!

It’s this kind of thinking that should be encouraged by educators, and exercised by children and adults alike.

Photo credit: jurvetson

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Abubakar Jamil June 25, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Great approach Haider. your student are lucky for having you as their teacher.

The worst really is “Being told to memorize answers, without knowing why they’re true, bypasses the thinking process, and sees the human brain as a storage house, with no cognitive apparatus that acts on and analyzes the information it stores.” in our school systems.

They just kill the curiosity, creativity and mental progress.
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2 Dia June 26, 2010 at 12:18 am

Very nice post Haider. Learning to think creatively is important for success. When I was working for one of the companies, my boss used to say that he is in the director’s position because of his thinking. In other words, he gets paid for his thinking. It is important to teach children and everyone to use their thinking skills. Thanks for sharing
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3 Haider June 26, 2010 at 1:12 am

Abubakar, I went through a phase of depression when I realized the extent to which students in college have been damaged by the education system. Students want to know exactly what kind of questions will appear in their exams, because they can’t apply what they learn in any situation they have not seen before.

I once gave them a quiz that asked them to apply what they’ve learned to answer a new style of questions, and not a single student was able to make sense of the quiz. One of the students apologized, and I told her that it wasn’t her fault, since they were brought up with this kind of mentality: Read, then apply (with no mental processing in between).

I plan on promoting critical thinking as part of the curriculum. Wish me luck! ;)

Dia, you had a wise boss (although I hope he wasn’t arrogant :P ). I wonder what companies can do to encourage creative thinking in their employees. Problem-solving would be a breeze if we learn how to apply our thinking skills to our work. Thanks for stopping by! :D

4 hesbon kerongo
Twitter: yourbesthere
June 28, 2010 at 11:24 am

that is very true,using creative ways is the one way of making it happen. The article is awesome
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5 Haider June 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Hi Hesbon,

Creativity is essential to learning, but is sadly overlooked when teachers (and parents) obsess over facts, and not the thinking process that leads to them. Learning isn’t just about understanding the world, but discovering ways of making the most of what we have. If we only try to make sense of what we see, we’d still be admiring birds, without having planes that allow us to fly as well. Thanks for stopping by! :D

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