We are not interested in the right answer

Earlier this week I was privileged to be able to spend the morning in one of our 2yr old classrooms.  As always, I left overwhelmed with the flurry of cognitive development present in our classrooms.  The epistemological question of how knowledge develops is endlessly fascinating and constantly on display in a nursery classroom.  By spending time carefully observing children we are granted a small glimpse of this development. Piaget writes that when a child’s current knowledge structure comes into conflict with a new stimulus or experience, the child’s natural inclination toward equilibrium drives the development of a new level of understanding.  Viewed as such, the dissonance between what one knows and phenomena that challenge that knowledge becomes the key component in one’s education. So it is this gap that we pay attention to – the gap between what a child knows and what they are about to know. 

How do we treat this gap?  Answering that question lies at the core of how we interact with children.  If you have been in our classrooms recently, you have likely heard two common teacher-responses to students. “Why do you think so?” is one of these responses, and the other is a straight repetition of the child’s words back to them: “Rain comes from puddles.” 

Where do responses like this come from? Wouldn’t it make sense to simply tell the child, “Rain comes from the sky, not from puddles?”

Eleanor Duckworth, noted educational theorist and student of Piaget’s for twenty years, writes that too often, “teachers are encouraged to go for right answers, as soon and as often as possible, and whatever happens along the way is treated as incidental.” Duckworth emphasizes the need for a teacher to be neutral in their response to children’s thinking; that the teacher should focus on “what the children were thinking, not its rightness or wrongness.”  This neutrality guides both of the above mentioned teacher-responses you often hear at the JCC.  By assessing a child’s thought as right or wrong, we are labeling their thought process as complete: “You have mastered this topic and are ready to move on to a new one.” Duckworth continues, “One right answer unconnected to other answers, unexplored, not pushed to its limits, necessarily means a less adequate grasp of our experience.” Instead of validating a thought as “right” or “wrong,” Duckworth asks us to push the child to a deeper understanding.  “Why do you think rain comes from puddles?” Or even, “You said rain comes from clouds.  When? Why? How do you know that?”  By keeping the topic open, we are showing the child that once knowledge is gleaned, it is not closed off in sealed containers.  At its best, each bit of knowledge is explored, pushed, and prodded as we slowly connect it to other elements of our understanding.

So, with all this in mind, you can see why it was indeed a privilege to be in our 2yr old class one recent morning when the teachers asked the children, “How can we care for our plants?”  Answers flew all over the place: They need to drink because if they don’t they will die / My daddy said that it will die in 28 minutes / Pour food in it – cauliflower/ Broccoli / Latkes! / Watermelon / We could just put it at the bottom of the plant / That’s the mouth (pointing to center) / They don’t have bodies, they have leaves They don’t have mouths / I have teeth / They don’t look happy because they don’t have a mouth / We have a mouth and teeth / They’re upset because they don’t have a mouth or teeth The children’s prior knowledge dominates the conversation. Their knowledge about living things includes: they may die, they eat solid food, food needs a mouth, and that happiness is expressed through facial expressions. 

And that was it. Lesson over.

The children were now left with a dissonance between their prior level of understanding surrounding biological growth and their new realization that plants may not consume food the same way we do.  The students in this class will now be left to close this gap. They will explore, experiment, fail – and repeat.  Throughout this process, the teachers will respond to their thoughts with neutrality.  Ultimately, they will develop a more accurate answer to the teacher’s initial question.  They will never, though, come to a complete understanding of this process; they will never have the “right answer.” Plants need water…but do they all need the same amount? How long can a plant go without water?  How exactly does water make its way from the roots to the leaves? 

As Duckworth leaves us with, “What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will know.” Knowledge is constructed through personal exploration, not given to us like a Chanukah present.  Our students are explorers and knowledge-creators.  Our job is to cultivate in them the habit of mind that they are capable of identifying cognitive dissonance, exploring new and different interpretations of events, and eventually broadening their understanding.  We are not interested in “right answer.” We are interested in the cognitive development found in the struggle of not knowing the right answer.