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The tyranny of the “right” answer

7 min read


SmartBlog on Education will shine a light on back-to-school teaching and learning trends during July. In this blog post, Jim Dillon, director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention and a former educator and school administrator, offers 10 ways to make the distinction between “learning” and “performing” in the classroom.

It can happen innocently on the first day of kindergarten when the teacher says to the class, “Who can tell me the … ?” and then calls on one student to answer the question. Walk into most classrooms from kindergarten to college and it is likely that you will still hear the same “Who can tell me?” question uttered by the teacher. There is nothing inherently wrong with that question. The problem resides in the context in which the question is asked and what happens in the minds and hearts of those who hear it.

Let’s analyze what is going on in that typical teacher-student interaction:

  • The person in authority holds the answer to the question by virtue of the fact that she is the person in charge.
  • Some students — those with their hands up — think they know the answer that the teacher is looking for.
  • These students want to answer the question publicly to please the teacher and gain a public approval of what they know.
  • Students learn that already having the answer or quickly retrieving in their mind is preferable to taking the time to think about it.

Most tests or assessments — regardless of their intent — can be perceived by students as variations of that typical scenario triggered by the “Who can tell me?” question. Students learn that there are “real” consequences to having the right answer or not having it. Getting the right answer and the fear of not getting it is sadly too much of a hallmark of most schools.

So it might be a nice idea to tell students not to worry about mistakes or to embrace failure as part of the learning process, but it would be tantamount to telling someone performing their end of the year music recital not to worry about wrong notes — much, much easier said than done! It would also be a disservice to tell them not to worry because their goal should be to perform as flawlessly as possible to demonstrate their competence to others. Striving for excellence and high-level competence is and should be part of a positive motivation for learning.

What’s the solution to this conundrum of striving for excellence and still embracing mistakes and “failure”? It’s making the distinction between learning and performing: a distinction that is either blurred or forgotten in most schools.

Performing is about displaying competence; learning is about gaining competence. Learning and performing are part of the process of getting the “right answer,” gaining competence and the good feeling that comes with achieving it. A little anxiety can boost performance when someone is already competent and has some confidence. Anxiety also hinders gaining competence, depresses learning and drains it of its intrinsic value.

Most schools, however, leave the learning part out of the equation, so the version of learning students experience is really akin to performing. Many students are asked to demonstrate competence before they are competent. The expected “right” answer seems to be dangled over their heads by those in authority. Thinking that the right answer is expected by those in authority to gain their approval is what creates students who appear to be unmotivated to learn. They are really motivated to avoid publicly failing and not gaining the approval of adults and consequently their peers.

Educators can make the distinction between learning and performing clearer and thereby lessen the tyranny of the right answer by:

Saying what you mean: Most teachers ask a question in order to get students to think. They don’t want just one student to give them the right answer. Changing a “Who can tell me?” type of phrasing into “Take some time to think about … “; or “Share your thinking” can more accurately convey clear expectations to students.

Explicitly state that the expectation is to try — not to get the right answer. Simply acknowledging the difficulty of a task and stating that trying to do it is what is most important, can lessen the likelihood that students who doubt their competence will refrain from trying.

Tell stories of when you struggled and what went on in your mind. Every learning experience is really the story of how someone went from novice to expert. Without hearing this story, students often think that gaining competence came easily for the person. They need to hear how competence emerged from struggle.

Be aware of the influence that gaining your approval has on the learning process. It is a nice feeling to gain approval but the risk of not getting it can inject fear and anxiety into the learning process for students. Help students see and understand that learning is not about pleasing you, but about gaining knowledge and skills for themselves.

Make sure learning is never a race or competition among peers. Winning may be a part of performing, but it is a scarce commodity. Learning isn’t. Learning anything should be available and achievable for all.

Build strong social support among learners. People who feel connected and supported take more risks, try harder and learn better than people who feel alone. Any time invested in strengthening connections among students pays dividends.

Do your best to minimize time as variable for success. It is very difficult to remove time as criteria for success. Be upfront with students about this, but where you can provide as much flexibility time wise for gaining competence.

Learn with your students. It is impossible to remove the greater knowledge you have about topics and life in general compared to your students. Find topics or questions that you can pursue together on a more even playing field and sharing a similar learning journey.

Make sure MVP is part of all learning. Keep all learning in the context of meaning, value and purpose. If it is not readily apparent, then talk about it and discover it together. This is the best antidote to avoid the please the teacher nature of school.

Balance a recital experience, with a karaoke experience. Just as karaoke can be a way to experience music with mistakes and goof ups being part of the fun, you can help students discover the fun of playing around with ideas, trying and starting over and sharing some laughs along the way with others as part of the learning experience. Fun and laughter is probably the best indicator that you have removed the tyranny of the right answer from the learning environment.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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