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 this, this, this, this or this. But just a quick look, mind.