Tumbleweeds and Drool

My friend, mentor, former professor, fellow blogger, Shakespearean actor, member in good standing of the Ancient Order of Loyal  Philadelphia Phillies Fans, Don Quixote charging at the windmills of reformy education, Russ Walsh (russonreading.blogspot.com) had some interesting things to say this weak on paralyzing obsession one right answer in American schools. In doing so, he hit on one of my favorite hot button topics.

The belief in one right answer is paralyzing. Literally. I remember working with a wonderful language arts teacher named Elizabeth Procida in a class of learners retreating into quickly reluctance. Whenever we attempted to cross the border into critical thinking, Liz’s room became morgue-like. (Actually, that’s being kind. I grew up the grandson of a funeral director and I often saw more life in the morgue.) We teased the kids about tumbleweeds rolling down the aisles into puddles of drool.

Liz and I eventually concluded that these students had either been trained, or some how had divined, that there were definitive right or wrong answers to all questions, and if they didn’t know what to say, they sat on their hands and clenched their jaws tight.

Tumbleweeds and drool.

We wanted students to predict, speculate, theorize and suggest. We wanted them to take risks.

Tumbleweeds and drool.

We tried the normal stuff: Wait time. Think-pair-share. Jot down ideas.
Tumbleweeds. Drool.

Finally, we came up with a “new” questioning technique. We called it, “Give us the best wrong answer.”

Why do you think the author chose to write in present tense instead of past tense, we might ask.


Okay, give us your best wrong answers, we would say.

A few shaky hands appeared.

Why do you think this character change will be permanent?


Okay, give us your best wrong answers.

Spotty hand raising.

Come on, we said. Absolutely anybody can give a wrong answer.

Slowly more hands started to appear. Then more. Then even more.

The “best wrong answer” strategy took away from the students any fear of being wrong. Wrong answers became okay. They became a challenge. Students started to take risks. They began to think outside the box a little.

And guess what? In a field of “best wrong answers” we began to find some very insightful, very thoughtful answers.

What we were actually doing wasn’t much different than brainstorming. But the way we phrased to question took any pressure off the kids to give right answers all the time.

To promote higher levels of thinking, Liz and I discovered, you have to remove the pressure of always being right.

You have to give you students permission to be wrong. You have to give them permission to try and try again. Permission to fail as often as necessary, until they find the best possible answers.

Right or wrong.

Shameless promotional plugs:

If you aren’t already following Russ Walsh, check out the Russ on Reading blog and associated Facebook fan. I’ve been lucky enough to meet many of the celebrities in literacy today: Ralph Fletcher, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Cris Tovani, and a bunch more. I love every one of them, but I will also tell you that Russ has every bit the knowledge and expertise as these guys.

Liz Procida is a tireless teacher leader. Check out her Teacher Pay Teacher store, https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Struggle-To-Success. She really does need the money.





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