"No you're not."
"Yes we are."
"But we're at the exit and you're not here."
"We found another one."
"Nice try. There isn't another one. Keep working at it and we'll see you soon!"
With that, the faculty member hung up the phone. A prize had been offered for the first student group who made it through the corn maze at our school-wide team-building retreat last week and not more than five minutes into the activity the faculty member in charge got a call from a student reporting that her group had won. The problem is that the faculty member and I were both standing right next to the maze's exit and we knew full well that no students had yet emerged.
And then, in the distance, we spotted a group of students rounding a far corner of the field. They were out of the maze. And sure enough, the student who had called was leading the pack. It wasn't possible. Yet there it was.
After calling in the farm's proprietor to investigate the mysterious appearance of our students, we learned that this maze had a "night entrance" on the other side of the field for groups that come when it's dark. And we learned that the person whom he had asked to ensure that the "night entrance" was closed before our students entered the maze, had failed to do so. So there was, indeed, another exit and this group had found it.
Quite a bit has been said and written about the educational limitations of multiple choice tests. While efficient and economical, their failure to document a student's thought process in arriving at their answers severely limits the teacher's view of what the student has learned, and in the case of a good guesser, obfuscates it completely. Beyond their limitations as accurate assessments, multiple choice tests can also communicate a subtle, yet powerful message to students that there is, in fact, only one right answer. While in computational mathematics that might well be the case, in so many other areas it simply isn't true. And the world we live in today, and the world to which our students are headed, is one in which the ability to choose THE right answer from four on a list is valued far less than the ability to argue why all four answers could be right or to prove that the right answer isn't actually on the page.
Yet it dawned on me as we stood there at the corn maze and watched students emerge from an exit we were sure did not exist, that even those of us who want to cultivate innovation and out-of-the-box thinking amongst our students may at times be guilty of demanding THE right answer when what we're really looking for is OUR right answer.
Perhaps the most salient example are those classroom "conversations" that really aren't conversations at all. They start with the best of intentions. The teacher wants to make a point and instead of just coming out and saying it, she asks a leading question and then turns to the students for the answer. Then the game starts. The teacher's face broadcasts to the students that she has an answer in mind. A student raises their hand hoping to please the teacher by providing the answer she was looking for. He is called on. He gives an answer. Immediately the teacher's expression sours. It wasn't THE answer. She composes herself, smiles and responds with something like "that's true but..." or "umm...that's interesting but..." In the blink of an eye her sights turn away from the first student in search of another brave soul who might give her the answer she was looking for. This could continue for two or three rounds until the teacher either gets THE answer or gives up and lets the students know what it was they should have come up with.
I'm as guilty a perpetrator as anyone else in this regard. In fact, perhaps my guilt is greater in that I once had the privilege of studying with a master educator whose approach was so dramatically different that it was often unnerving. I'll never forget the days when Rav Aharon Lichtenstein asked a question to the students in his shiur and got a response that he wasn't looking for. His hand would immediately go to his forehead, his eyes turned down, and in silence he'd sit there and think for what might have been two, five, or ten minutes but which to me felt like an eternity. After fully processing the suggestion he might then point out the flaw in the student's argument. On numerous occasions, though - occasions etched permanently in memory - he'd look up and announce that the approach suggested was a good one and that he'd have to rethink his previous position.
As teachers, mentors, and guides we have a responsibility to tell students when they are wrong. As adults trying to raise good, upstanding children in a world that increasingly hesitates to acknowledge good and evil, we have a duty to help our students recognize that some things in life aren't up for discussion. But when it comes to developing our students as thinkers, when it comes to equipping them with the skills for success in life, the more we can step back and remind ourselves that there may well be another way out the maze, the better off they will be.