Answer or Process?

By Mark Beuligmann, May 24, 2010 11:34 am

Which is more important, giving the right answer—or working through the material? Before I answer that question, let’s work through it.

First of all, what prompts me to consider such a question anyway? I consider it because we at CLASS see the tension between these two objectives in the work submitted by our students. It is clear that some students just want to quickly put down on paper what they think the teacher or grader wants to see—the right answer. Thus they will be given a good grade and will be able to move on. The goal is not so much to acquire knowledge, but to get finished. For other students, it is clear that they not only want to give the right answer, but want to demonstrate whenever possible that they arrived at that answer through diligent work. This latter approach, by the way, will make a student stand out like a lighthouse on a stormy night.

Many pursuits and activities compete for a student’s time. The pressure can push students to just locate and put down what they hope is the right answer, bypassing the effort it takes to actually derive the right answer. Students attempt to fabricate the appearance of accomplishment, without spending the time and effort it takes to lay a true foundation of knowledge and skills.

Our behavior as adults can shape how students approach their studies. Adults claim to be very busy today, even though they use more labor-saving and productivity devices than any previous generation. I believe people are very busy, because all the tools they possess simply raise the bar on expected productivity. Americans are typically a results-oriented society. We want the product, the sale, the badge, the award, and we want it now. All this can lead to looking for shortcuts. We don’t have time to go through the process. We don’t have time to build a firm foundation. We don’t have time to do the calculations. We want to be able to pick the right answer from a convenient lineup.

Our children watch us very carefully, even though we—and maybe even they—may not be aware of it. If we take shortcuts, our children will notice. They will become like us. They will conclude that, in order not to “lose out,” they must just get to the “end” as quickly as possible. They “learn” from us that the goal is not to be knowledgeable, competent, and skilled, but just to have the badge, document, or grade that supposedly proves that you are all those things.
One way parents take a shortcut is to look for a “silver bullet” to educate their children. They seem to say, “I don’t have time to read the books, make lesson plans, grade the papers, etc. Just give me something I can put in front of my child that will educate him.” It is as though they think education can be imparted through a gel capsule.

Students adapt this approach to their own circumstances. For example, they turn in research papers that look like research papers, but if you look under the title page, you quickly learn that the goal was appearance, not product. Perhaps paragraphs are strung together in an apparently random order. Perhaps many works are cited, but few actually quoted in the paper. The students wanted to give the appearance of having done considerable research, when little was actually done. They just wanted the grade, the ticket, the pass—whatever it is that you need to gain access to the next level. These students don’t know the joy of not only knowing the material, but being confident that they could begin at the beginning and lead another person to a similar understanding of it. They don’t value in-depth knowledge. They don’t care if they are truly competent. They want the status without having to exhibit the stamina.

It is good to give the right answer. You should strive to do that, but beneath that should be a passion for digging, researching, pondering, meditating, and yes, understanding. The goal is not just to give the teacher what she wants, but to develop an educated and ever learning individual within yourself. There may be momentary satisfaction when you can give the right answer, but there is lasting joy in knowing that you can lay the groundwork for, and defend, that answer.

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