"There are no wrong answers!"

//"There are no wrong answers!"

Along with, “It’s a skills based subject,” the cry that there are no wrong answers in English is, I think pretty unhelpful.
Take the example of teaching Priestley’s perennial, An Inspector Calls. Every time we’ve finished the play, without fail, a body of students will be firmly persuaded that poor, unloved Eva Smith was murdered by the Inspector. I’m not going to bore you with why this interpretation is so wrong-headed, just take it from me that goes against everything that Priestley was trying to achieve. When I’ve pointed out – precisely and at length – why this view is incorrect, some students remain impossible to convince. This is the problem with cognitive change: it’s hard (if not impossible) to unlearn a misconception once you have internalised it and this, in turn accounts for the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.
I’m sure you can think of lots of instances where students have come up with similarly naive misconceptions. One of my favourites occurred when teaching Romeo and Juliet to a Year 9 class in Weston-super-Mare. We’d arrived at the point where Romeo learns he is to be banished for killing Tybalt and dissolves into desperate hysteria. I asked the class what Romeo should do and one student suggested that it was silly to make such a fuss, and that he, finding himself in a similar situation would just move in with his nan in Bridgewater. Now, he understood that they didn’t have phones or tellies in Shakespeare’s day, but the idea that people lived and thought in utterly alien ways was completely outside his experience. He needed to know something about the political make-up of Renaissance Italy, the dependence Romeo would have had on his family and the fact that every person he knew would have lived within the walls of Verona. To have an informed opinion he would also need to consider the practicalities of travelling what to us may seem short distances but to Elizabethans would have been fraught with difficulty and danger. The idea of moving in with a convenient relative is a non starter and the lesson was derailed as I  patiently and imperfectly attempted to explain why. Would it be better to just say, “No, that’s wrong”?
Now, I know why English teachers don’t do this: we want students to experience the text without us having polluted it with our own interpretations. We think that the more freedom students have, the better their eventual understanding will be. I think this is an example of the difference between the way novices and experts solve problems. Just because we, as experts, might enjoy reading a text with no explicitly stated preconceptions doesn’t mean this is best for students. (It’s also worth noting that we’re largely unaware of our preconceptions because we’ve already internalised them.) Students will tend to find it easier to understand a text if they are given a contextual framework in which to place it. In the case of An Inspector Calls, the default framework is the murder mystery. Most students will have some experience of the whodunnit and that, along with the supernatural elements of the play, will convince them that the Inspector being a murderer is a plausible possibility. My argument is that it’s irresponsible not to disrupt this framework at the outset.
Of course, we don’t want to crush our students’ curiosity and nascent analysis, but neither do we want them to get too firm a hold on the wrong end of the stick. This being the case, it might be better to begin the study of An Inspector Calls by saying something like, “Some people end up believing the Inspector murders Eva Smith but this is wrong. If at any point you find yourself tempted by this view you need to recognise that it’s a misconception and look for alternative interpretations.”
Rather than taking away students’ freedom to analyse and interpret, this is liberating. It allows them to avoid building their ideas on shaky foundations and looking foolish. There really are wrong answers in English, and there are most definitely badly thought out answers. This is an approach I think might have merit in a range of subjects, not just English.
To preempt the inevitable criticism that no one actually says there are no wrong answers, have a quick look at thisthis, this, this or this. But just a quick look, mind.

2016-06-18T12:01:29+00:00June 18th, 2016|English|


  1. costadelsolent June 18, 2016 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Completely agree – the “I think Lennie might” dilemma. Had a year 10 pupil convinced Lennie was pretending to have a mental illness.
    We do want to encourage analysis but doing it blindly and without understanding of context is like giving them an airfix kit but not telling them what the model is or any instructions.
    The fallacy that there are no wrong answers revolves around the misconception that texts exist without context or purpose. Of course the writer bloody meant something when they wrote it!!!

  2. Dylan Wiliam June 18, 2016 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    Three points:
    1) In my experience, English teachers are particularly skilled in taking contributions made by their students and re-stating them in a way that makes them correct, even though what the student said was not correct. The teacher often does this so as not to be seen to criticize the student, but the problem is that the student often thinks that what he or she said originally was correct.
    2) In English Literature GCSE lessons, students are told that realizing that the text can have multiple meanings is what gets you access to the higher grades. So even if you know damn well what the author meant because you have heard him talk about what he was trying to say, you would be better off saying that he could have meant that or he could have meant this.
    3) School subjects vary in the extent to which non-standard answers are valued. In mathematics, the claim that 2+2=5 is just wrong, as is the claim in science that whales are fish. In history, you could argue that Russia was most to blame for World War 1, although you would need to work pretty hard to convince most historians. In English, there appears to be an even greater tolerance for non-standard responses, but again non-standard responses do need to be supported by reference to the text. As soon as we get, in any subject, to a point where “anything goes” then it stops being something we should be doing in schools…

    • David Didau June 18, 2016 at 6:28 pm - Reply

      Thanks Dylan. I pretty much agree, but in response:
      1) Yes they are but this kind of paraphrasing is often unhelpful as the student just nods and says, “Er, yeah.”
      2) What I’ve written allows for multiple interpretations, just not grossly incorrect ones.
      3) Sure. Evidence is always important, but as you know, you can ‘prove’ *anything* with evidence, no matter how shonky the evidence or the ‘proof’. I can’t abide the relativist approach that says all interpretations are equal.

    • Michael Rosen June 18, 2016 at 6:38 pm - Reply

      On the other hand the problem, 2 apples plus 2 oranges, could be a) not doable or b) 4 if you make a ‘set’ out of apples and oranges by calling them fruit. In which case it’s 4.

  3. Arthur Rubin June 18, 2016 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    Thank you, one more time, David, for feeding me a trigger to comment. Great post.
    Brings to mind one way to enhance teacher decision making: Always ask, “Is this in the best interest of THIS learner?” And, if you answer “yes”. ask: “How do I know that it is?” Anything that pushes teachers to be more objective, more questioning of their decision making and the basis for their decisions, will be helpful.

  4. Michael Rosen June 18, 2016 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    I think the basic idea here, David, is slightly bothersome when the teacher in question says ‘You, student are wrong, such-and-such is the right answer’ and it turns out that the teacher is in fact wrong. I wrote an essay about some Elizabethan plays and Dame Helen Gardner said that I had made them up, invented them. I hadn’t.

    • David Didau June 19, 2016 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      Obviously if the teachers is wrong that that’s a sorry state of affairs. Thankfully, I’m not suggesting we try to second guess every instance in which a student might supply an interpretation of a writer’s intention, mere;y that we preempt the grossest, most common misconceptions about which no sensible is going to quibble.
      I don’t think the example you offer has anything to do with my argument. Any teacher who accuses a student of having ‘made up’ something without thoroughly checking their facts is asking for trouble.

  5. buzztrotters June 18, 2016 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    What is ‘wrong’? Not correct? Not true? Dishonest? Indeed, if these are ‘true’ synonyms for ‘wrong’ then are we not presuming readers’/students’ interpretations are ‘untrue’ ‘incorrect’ and ‘dishonest’ if they don’t correspond to the author’s intentions or what the teacher believes to be ‘correct’. This makes reading quite an unnatural and one-dimensional experience, which I’m sure you would agree, is a far cry from the actual experience of reading any text. And more importantly, it disregards the contextual framework from which the reader interprets a text. Surely, it would be more useful for a student to explore why they have arrived at a certain conclusion rather than say that’s a ‘grossly incorrect answer’? So, for example, a student’s interpretation of Lennie faking his mental illness could derive from their lack of understanding/knowledge of mental illness. Yes, it may be that their interpretation is ‘wrong’ compared to Steinbeck’s intentions but can we really call their interpretation, which has derived from their own experience or lack of experience, ‘wrong’? Surely their interpretation is more honest, more true to who they are than wrong?

    • David Didau June 19, 2016 at 1:09 pm - Reply

      As I set out above, I know *why* students end up believing, for instance, that it was the Inspector what done it. Debating this is not only a waste of precious curriculum time, it is also likely to end up embedding the misconception.
      Maybe it’s more useful to label certain ‘wrong’ answers as naive. I’m not suggesting students be castigated for naivety, it’s a product of liminal thinking and to be predicted. It might help to read through a discussion on liminality (https://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/learning-is-liminal-2/) and threshold concepts (https://www.learningspy.co.uk/planning/using-threshold-concepts-to-think-about-curriculum-design/)

      • MissYAR June 19, 2016 at 2:47 pm - Reply

        I’ve read both. It’s interesting that one of your proposed threshold concepts for English is ‘understanding that texts can be subject to analysis to reveal a variety of meanings.’ If students are to become proficient in this skill of analysis and interpretation, surely debating why we interpret texts in different ways leads to students using this understanding to then independently re-craft their own interpretations, maybe in line with the author’s or teacher’s intentions, maybe not. How can this kind of meta-cognition be a waste of precious curriculum time? A student is more likely to change their thinking if they have stronger meta-cognition, no? Surely debating why students have arrived at these conclusions is a product of the kind of liminal thinking that leads to effective analysis of texts, and more importantly, life-long learning power. It also allows students to think for themselves rather than relying on their teacher. Harper Lee’s characterization of Scout Finch in Go Set a Watchman lends itself well to this case. As teachers, it seems you are suggesting we try to be an Atticus Finch to our students, leading them to the ‘right’ interpretation but then look what happens to poor Scout in her adulthood.

        • David Didau June 19, 2016 at 3:15 pm - Reply

          The literature on cognitive change is pretty clear that to undo a misconception we need to revisit the correct concept on at least 2 separate occasions to have a chance of it replacing the old way of thinking. Cognitive growth is much more straightforward: you just have to remember something you didn’t previously know. As there is nothing to conflict with the new information, learning it is much easier.
          Within the framework of the threshold concept of analysis and interpretations, students need to know two things:
          1: There are multiple valid ways to interpret a text.
          2: There are also multiple invalid responses to a text.
          Not all answers are good ones and the more you know about context, writer’s craft and generic conventions the better your ideas will be.
          As such, time spent building the necessary background knowledge and then exploring valid interpretations is well spent. Time spent indulging easily predictable naive interpretations takes away from the time we have to spend on good ideas. Remember, there is always an opportunity cost: https://www.learningspy.co.uk/leadership/opportunity-knocks/
          Just to be clear, of course I’m suggesting we lead students toward the most productive ways of thinking and to avoid the most predictable pitfalls. Anything else is irresponsible. However, I am categorically not suggesting we tell children there is one right answer, just that there some bad ones we can easily side step.
          To paraphrase Tolstoy: “Bad answers are all alike; every good answer is good in its own way.”

          • buzztrotters June 19, 2016 at 6:39 pm

            Let not the teacher be his watchman, for his own conscience watches him.
            Let him be.

  6. Rufus June 19, 2016 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    With respect to ‘The Inspector Calls’ issue, could you not just do a lesson next called ‘Why some people think Eve is Murdered by the Inspector and why they are wrong’? If you have tried this, you say that you have explained it at length, then perhaps it is this explanation that is the problem, maybe you could have addressed the misconception in a better way.
    My point is that you don’t want students to glean misconceptions from your lessons, but sometimes, as in the case here, it seems inevitable that some will. That seems to me to be an interesting aspect of the text, one that readers outside institutions will infer as well. I wonder if you did offer the precis “Some people end up believing the Inspector murders Eva Smith but this is wrong. If you’re tempted by this view you need to recognise that it’s a tempting misconception and look for alternative interpretations” before the start of teaching that this would indeed stop people falling into the trap.

  7. Matt (@MattPoacher) June 19, 2016 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    I’ve come late to teaching (long story) and have just taught An Inspector Calls for the first time. I’ve been kind of stunned by the, ah, creative responses to the identity of the Inspector – mainly, like yours, that the Inspector murdered Eva, to him being Eva in drag come to avenge her death, by Eric or Gerald (or a jealous Sheila).
    My response has been to encourage participation (it tends to be weaker students, though I hesitate to generalise) and to encourage discussion, while always steering us back to the text and the writer’s purpose. I think shutting down speculation as to the Inspector’s identity means potentially missing all the rich stuff around the idea of ghosts and just ‘what’ has died, and the necessity of haunting.
    Anyway, I’m rambling. Thanks for an interesting piece.

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  9. […] lessons students learn that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, that there are ‘no wrong answers‘ and that arguing what you think is more important than knowing a text in any depth. Anything […]

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