Wednesday, April 4, 2007
When you ask a question of a student, what kind of answer do you want? When I first started teaching just four years ago, I would have replied, "the correct answer, of course." Now, I say, "I want an answer that's wrong in a helpful way." The process of bringing the student from helpfully wrong to precisely right is, in my opinion, more valuable to the rest of the class than hearing the correct answer from a student the first time you ask the question. I can't give you a precise definition of "helpfully wrong," except to say that such an answer is usually the product of a talented student's valiant struggle with difficult and unfamiliar material.
Of course, the helpfully wrong answer is not the only kind of wrong answer. There's also what I call the "grinding halt" answer, named for what it does to the class. That's the answer where other students (ordinarily sympathetic to the person being questioned) do one or more of the following: turn and stare at the answering student, sigh loudly, bury their face in their hands, and/or roll their eyes. The grinding halt answer is the one that makes me wonder if I've just called upon a college freshman who got lost on the way to his American History seminar. It's the answer that flies in the face of every CivPro concept, rule, and doctrine with which the student ought to be familiar. As often as not, the grinding halt answer is a product of the student's fear of being called on, not a lack of aptitude or preparation.
Most students feel some anxiety the first time they are called on, but every so often I find a student who is paralyzed by fear. As a teacher, I struggle with this issue. I fear this fear. On the one hand, the student's anxiety at being called on may have no affect on test performance. On the other hand, isn't the paralyzing fear going to be a bigger problem for the student than not knowing some detail of the law of procedure?