A Math Class Where There Are No Right Answers?
I have been thinking a lot about right answers this week. If there was no need to get a right answer in math class, how would this change the culture of the classroom? There are a lot of math tasks where the focus is not on the right answer and yet they provide vast opportunity for practice of various skills. I wonder about the value in this versus the value of focusing on the right answer? I have also been wondering what this could like in terms of assessment?
In terms of how it might look different for practice in the classroom, if there was not a focus on what the right answer is, we probably wouldn’t “go over” the tasks at the end as we might be tempted to do. Instead students might simply share their work or discuss their process as a whole class without the teacher working toward a right answer. It could look like giving feedback to students, while they work on tasks, on the parts of their thinking that show mathematical behaviors that promote accuracy without saying “that’s right”; perhaps saying, “that seems reasonable since we are talking about _____”. Students might check their work, rather than “going over” the right answers, by working backwards or comparing with another student and working through discrepancies.
Thinking about assessment was a little more difficult because how do you score something if it’s not about being correct? But really, I wasn’t thinking about there not being a right answer but just not focusing on right answers as the way to be successful. And then I realized that I just got done revamping several assessments that do exactly this. The tasks on the assessment give students opportunities to demonstrate learning targets. Students demonstrate proficiency or they don’t. If they don’t, there is time to think about next steps so that they can try again. They do have to get the answers right but the focus is on demonstrating proficiency rather than the number of correct problems.
These are subtle differences but I think important ones that send a clear message to kids about the mindset we expect. We really need to be thinking about how our subtle “teacher moves” impact the message we want students to get from us. If we want students to demonstrate a growth mindset because we know that it improves achievement then we have to be very thoughtful about “walking the walk” so to speak.