Imagine picking up the newspaper and seeing this story:

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan today, causing widespread destruction. During a news conference, the Prime Minister said, “We have considered all of the possible solutions to this problem, eliminated the distractor and one other obvious wrong answer, and then guessed between the two that remained. We chose C.” 
Obviously ridiculous (and not because newspapers are mythical creatures). Yet this is what we are setting our children up to expect. Because the entire world of school now revolves around the preparation for, and the aftermath of, high-​stakes annual tests, students now believe that all problems worth solving have pre-​defined “right” answers. Even worse, they believe that “problem solving” means being able to successfully choose (or if all else fails, guess) what that right answer might be.

Let’s stay in this alternate universe for a little while and see how our future citizens might tackle some typical real world problems:

1. You are the senior manager of a nuclear power plant that has been damaged in an earthquake. Radiation is leaking, and the core temperature is rising, rapidly approaching melt down. Do you:

a) Draft a press release minimizing the threat to the community?
b) File a law suit against the engineering firm that built the plant?
c) Turn the air conditioners on high?
d) Panic and cry?

2. You are the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and you just discovered that several of the country’s largest banks are in danger of failing catastrophically because of poor investments and questionable accounting practices. Do you:

a) Blame it on the previous administration?
b) Tell the Treasury Department to print up a whole bunch of new money to help the banks catch up?
c) Lower interest rates?
d) Panic and cry?

You get the idea. Real world problems don’t have a finite set of solutions from which we simply have to pick the best. Natural disasters, the economy, climate change, even our personal relationships are complicated and messy. Yet I already see in my own children a mindset where if they don’t know the obvious “right” answer to a problem, they wait for someone to give it to them—or at least to give them the possible options they can choose from.

You are likely familiar with the Chinese proverb about fishing. My wife and two of my sons went fishing last week while on vacation in Florida. In the course of about three hours, I caught one trout (on my first cast, no less), and my son caught a small catfish we had to throw back. There were several times that all of us were getting tired and frustrated and I just wanted to be able to jump into the water and hook something onto their lines for them.

Many of our classrooms can look like this. Teaching someone how to fish, or how to solve math problems, or how to read, can be complicated, frustrating, and tiresome. It is tempting to just show them shortcuts, and often we do.

The prep-​and-​test cycle can lead this way as well. As Diana Laufenberg said to me yesterday on Twitter,

@geraldaungst we’ve got to get over this obsession that there is a bucket of info our students should be carrying around.Sun May 01 18:34:08 via web

(Thanks to Diana for also suggesting the idea that led to the title of this post.)

There is an expectation, reinforced by years of NCLB, that in education we can see steady, continuous improvement, and that the simple path to this improvement is better teaching by better teachers. It’s like driving a school bus: if we get a driver who is more effective, the bus will get to its destination more efficiently and the passengers on that bus will get further along the route.

The reality is much more complex and much more subtle. Teachers aren’t the bus drivers. Students are. And not only are they not in the same place on the route, they’re not all even on the route. In fact, they’re not all driving buses. Some have cars, some are on bikes, some are walking or even sitting in canoes. When a teacher gets involved in the process, it’s not a simple matter of turning the steering wheel, giving it gas, or applying the brake. We are more like guides who are explaining the map. We don’t have the luxury of seeing immediate results of our instruction, and in fact by the time results start to appear, we have likely given a great deal of additional instruction in the meantime.

I’ve used this school bus metaphor before, and will likely expand on it more in the future. The point here is that the reality of teaching doesn’t align with the expectation of immediate and positive improvement. Just like I got frustrated waiting to see results of our attempt at fishing last week and wanted to take shortcuts, teachers and administrators look for faster, more straightforward ways of getting the results that are demanded. So we also take shortcuts, training kids to take tests more effectively and more efficiently, filling their non-​existent buckets with globs of information just waiting to be spewed out onto their test booklets like graphite measles. We sacrifice learning for performance, understanding for achievement, and innovation for indoctrination.

Shortcuts can only get short term results, and only by the tightly limited definition of “results” that is in vogue today: a test-​score graph with a positive slope. Real world results mean solving real problems; messy, complicated, confusing problems where there might very well be no real solution. It doesn’t mean going by the book, it means writing an entirely new one. Results are about creating new things that never existed before, not about selecting the least inadequate of someone else’s mediocre options.

When I was in school, one of the tricks of the multiple-​choice game that I was taught was, “When in doubt, choose C.” I suggest that we need a new answer:

E. None of the above.

Postscript: This post was written and scheduled before the events of last evening. Just one more example of an immensely complex problem with no easy or obvious solutions. I’m glad we have problem-​solvers working on this and not answer-selecters.