Preserving the Quest for the Right Answer
“There’s no right answer.”
This is a common refrain in many educational contexts, most commonly in the humanities, such as history and literature, and most commonly during discussions.
Sometimes this is done because the questions involved are controversial. If you’re having students discuss either a perennial problem like free will, or a topical one like gun control, there isn’t a clear consensus answer in the culture or an agreed-upon methodology to arriving at such an answer. “There’s no right answer” becomes a shorthand for this lack of consensus.
Other times this is done because the topics involved are subjective. You’re asking for a student’s immediate reaction to an event in a novel, or their impression of a poem, or just for them to recount an illustrative experience. Here, “no right answer” becomes a way of indicating that you’re not looking for a specific response.
Still other times it’s just about lowering the stakes. “There’s no right answer” is meant to decrease the cost of speaking up by removing the risk of being wrong.
Ironically, the result of the “no right answer” mantra is actually to destroy motivation. If there’s no right answer, if there’s no truth here, why bother?
Cognitive motivation—the desire to know, to understand, to get at the truth—is underappreciated by educators as a motivation. Educators debate whether grades and test scores are proper motivators or too “extrinsic”, and whether and how passion projects and independent interests can be used to motivate learning. The pursuit of truth, the desire to be right—not in right in a debate, but right with the world—are powerful motives in themselves. The mind wants to know, and this desire to know should be pushed, protected, and cultivated.
“There’s no right answer”, despite being well-intentioned, undermines this motivation—both in the moment and as a habit. In the case of sharing experiences or opining, it can be straightforwardly replaced with the more precise, “I’m not looking for a particular answer.” In other cases, it’s far better to speak to students in a way that makes clear that there is a right answer—even if no one knows it, even it’s really hard, even if most people get it wrong and even if you get it wrong, we’re trying to figure it out.
The apparent fragility of students is more a product of how adults fail to help motivate them to understand risk, including cognitive risk. If anything, young children are naturally risk-takers, happy to stumble, to make mistakes, to put forth sustained effort for a while before they even ask for help. What adults do is not just fail to foster that motivation, but to undermine and block it.
“There’s no right answer” is somewhere at the nebulous intersection of preemptively sheltering a student’s supposedly fragile self-esteem, and tacitly endorsing the meta-philosophical view that there are actually no right answers to certain questions.
Sheltering a person’s self-esteem just doesn’t work as a general tactic. Self-esteem is earned, and esteeming one’s capacity for thought and discussion is earned through practice, through argument, through finding oneself wrong and learning to love the process of self-correction, of changing one’s mind. It’s human nature to seek the truth, but it’s also human nature to be wrong a lot. One needs to earn over time a trust in oneself to be able to handle and even profit from being wrong.
As for the view that there really are no right answers: it’s wrong. To be a bit pedantic: there are some circumstances where there is no right answer. Sometimes an idea is so arbitrary that it’s “not even wrong”. Sometimes you’re using a mode of expression more in the vein of a non-declarative speech act, so right and wrong isn’t directly at issue. But this is nowhere near justification for the notion that there are substantive, important questions, the types of questions that we routinely discuss in classroom seminars across many disciplines, on which there are neither right nor wrong answers.
Students will, of course, naturally grapple with the notion that there is no truth or that truth dissolves into weaker notions. Whether it’s pragmatism or standpoint epistemology or coherence theories, these ideas are in the air and even part of frameworks that should be offered for consideration in education. The point is not to propagandize students into believing in an objective, correspondence theory of truth—or even to push them to care about this issue.
But at the level of pedagogical methodology, aimed at cultivating implicit habits of mind, we indeed ought to be guided by this view. This is one of many examples where a commitment to a substantive philosophical view at the level of educational methodology manifests as a commitment to empowering students to disagree with that view. (The First Amendment, premised on the inviolate power of the individual mind, enables people to disagree with the First Amendment and whether or not the individual mind’s power really is inviolate.)
In class discussions, we may very well disagree with one another. We might, as a class, a society, or even as a species, be mistaken. We might, for these or for other good reasons, refrain from correcting a student in any particular case. But let there be no ambiguity in our pedagogy that we are on a quest for the right answers.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.
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