Do YOUR Kids Think that Being Right is More Important than Being Curious?

What worries me the most about today’s students is that they’ve learned that being right is more important than being curious

Need proof?  Stop by my classroom sometime and watch my kids wrestle with questions that have no one right answer.



(Original Image Credit: Kozini/Shutterstock)

First, they will double-check their work just to see if there IS a right answer that they inadvertently missed in their initial thinking.  Then, they will turn to peers to see if anyone else has found the right answer.  The feeling in the room will change as time goes by and more and more students start to realize that there isn’t something obvious to write down.  Kids will fidget.  Noise levels will rise.  Extra sources will be checked.

At that point, some exceptionally brave group will approach me to check their work.  “Did I do this right, Mr. Ferriter?” they’ll ask.  Pulled by the intellectual gravity of the moment, other groups with gather close, waiting to hear what I have to say and hoping that I’ll share the right answer with everyone.

“I’m not really sure either!,” I’ll say.  “Why don’t you explain your thinking to me.  Maybe there’s NOT a right answer.”  That’s when pure terror runs across their twelve-year-old faces.  The notion of a question without a right answer is literally crippling to them.

And that breaks my heart, y’all.  

It is evidence of my failure as a teacher — and our failure as a profession — to prioritize curiosity in our classrooms.  Moments where there is no clear right answer should leave students ENERGIZED — not PARALYZED.  Questions with no clear right answer should be fun to think about and wrestle with.  They provide opportunities for discovery — and discovery has always been the lifeblood of kids.

What my students have learned after years of traditional schooling, though, is that answers are more important than questions when you are trapped in a classroom.  School is about making good grades, NOT being curious — and making good grades means forgetting about anything that leaves you wondering and figuring out what it is that the teacher expects you to write down on your flippin’ rippin’ paper.

No wonder 70 percent of the kids in our classrooms are completely bored.




Related Radical Reads:

The REAL Bored of Education

Problemitizing the Curriculum

Where Have All the Beautiful Questions Gone?

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  • BillIvey

    Shared this one out immediately…

    … (well, after checking to see if you’d shared it from your own Twitter account so I could retweet). What you describe is heartbreaking (except for the hopeful part that the kids have you to help break the pattern), and beautifully written.

    The thing is, the pattern can be broken, because, as you say, “Questions with no clear right answer should be fun to think about and wrestle with.” My own kids love them (many of which, of course, they have come up with themselves), love hearing what each other has to say, love clarifying their own thinking. The passions stirred up can also lead to lively disagreements, and it’s my job to figure out when to let them work it out and when (and how) to intervene.

    Here’s a question back – do you think it’s easier for us to teach this way in middle school? Me, I know I periodically hear from faculty that certain parents don’t like my teaching methods, and I often hear from those kids (most of whom at least tell me they like my class) that their parents say “middle school doesn’t count.” I can’t help but think I’d be getting massive pushback if I was teaching in high school. What are your thoughts?

    • billferriter

      Bill asked:

      Bill asked:

      Here’s a question back – do you think it’s easier for us to teach this way in middle school? 


      Here’s what frightens me the most, Bill:  The pushback that I get is that “teaching this way” is failing my students because “I’m not leaving them prepared for high school.”

      Drives me completely nuts.  When we prioritize preparing kids for high school over creating meaningful learning experiences, we fail.  Plain and simple.

      Make sense?


      • BillIvey

        I’lll go one step farther…

        … and I think this also pulls in some of Renee’s ideas. You said, “When we prioritize preparing kids for high school over creating meaningful learning experiences, we fail.” and I agree. But I’d also suggest a slight rephrasing – something more like, “When creating meaningful learning experiences isn’t preparing kids for high school, we have collectively failed.” If it’s not about creating meaningful learning experiences – from pre-school through college and beyond – then something is way off.

  • ReneeMoore

    Cripples Students at All Levels

    To both Bills–

    This has bothered me for years! And it’s not just middle schoolo. I saw it in my high school students, and continue to battle it with the community college students of all ages. Our educational system has trained them that “there must be only one answer, and the teacher knows what it is, and I have to be the first to guess what it is.”  Education has become one big quiz game show.

    It’s a struggle to get students to accept that being curious, asking questions, seeking new knowledge is what really constitutes learning. Best way I’ve found to counter this false perception is with personal example; the more curious and excited I get the better for them. I agree with you, the types of questions we pose or help them pose also opens up their thinking.

    • BillIvey

      Personal examples…

      …can indeed be powerful, as can the types of questions that get asked. I also think of one of my observations this year, where the English Department Chair  remarked on how much space I leave for students to talk (he estimated I said no more than 60 or 70 words during the 50 or so minutes he was observing). People say all the time, “Who’s doing the talking is doing the learning,” and even if, as an introvert, I find that to be a bit overstated, I deeply believe in its premise.

  • Kary

    This is exactly how I am feeling

    This post encapsulates exactly what has been getting me down this week (the last week of term, handing back results, reporting, etc)

    I have seen sad faces (and some happy faces), as well as emails and phone calls from parents saying "why was that paper a C (or a B)? I read it, and it was definitely better than that."

    For almost 2 weeks during the assessment period, students would harangue "are we getting our results today?" with the same intensity as a junkie looking for a fix.

    This saddens me deeply and I feel it's probably time for me to get out of teaching as I have failed to inspire a love of learning. For the most part, the students I see love grades, not learning. As much as I tell them that a grade is just a letter on a page, it does not validate them as a human being, they respond that if they don't get "A", that their parents will be angry, they can't get into law, medicine, engineering etc. (I will leave my rant about the fact that these professions are mostly aspirations for perceptions of high income potential, rather than actual passion for the industry).

    I got into teaching because I love kids, I love my subject (English) and get a buzz out of seeing students "crack" a text, find the beauty and relevance of literature, find their voice as writers, learn to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and at the very least, develop essential literacy skills they will need to take their place in the world.

    But these processes increasingly seem to be the rigmarole to be endured in pursuit of the next "A" fix. 

    What can we do??

  • TriciaEbner

    And this is one of the biggest challenges we face . . .

    Oh, Bill (and Bill and Renee), I feel the pain here, too. Every time a new student comes into my class, there’s a strong probability that student will spend several weeks or even months bringing every single thing up to me and ask, “Is this right?” or “Am I doing this right?” or “Is this good enough for an A?” or even “Is this what you want?”

    Every single time, I throw the question back at the student in some fashion. 

    I know part of it comes from the “school culture” these kids are experiencing from kindergarten up. We are in an era of regular (even weekly, at some grades) common assessments. We assess and reteach. It is not uncommon for administrators to ask how and when we plan to incorporate the sample items and practice tests and released test items into our classroom work.

    Renee’s comment is so true:  “Education has become one big quiz game show.” Drives me crazy. It’s the antithesis of 21st century skills and learning. 

  • nicolesmith

    The Opposite Of Why I Want to Teach

    It can be depressing to teach students who have been taught school is about answer-getting. I see it in high school daily: after a decade or more of getting to the “right” answer quickly, students are often overly anxious if I don’t immediately respond with whether or not their answer was right and what is the right answer. Many don’t care about how to find an answer or even why one answer might be the best answer. Even when designing or finding tasks which don’t lend themselves to quickly finding an answer on a calculator, I see a serious amount of frustration and confusion from students over why I won’t just tell them the right answer, as opposed to allowing them to think through a given question.

    So far, I’m taking it as a challenge to be conquered: re-igniting a joy of learning for the sake of learning…without someone igniting my car over grades.