Today, there is a follow-up on yesterday’s Non Sequitur comic – in which Danae’s new math system is revealed: henceforth, she will start with the answer and work back to get an equation that fits the problem. This way, she will always be right.
Once again, the comic serves to reveal shared cultural attitudes about mathematics and mathematics education. We can call this one The Tyranny of the Right Answer. Here is how it goes: every math problem has an answer. There is a single right answer. Nothing is more important than the right answer. The teacher is the final source and authority on the right answer. Your job, in math class, is to chant the proper magical invocation and conjure up the Right Answer.
Now wait a minute, some people might respond. Are you suggesting that when a student answers 2 + 2 = 5 you don’t mark it wrong? What kind of a message would that send to our students?
Fair enough. What we do in math class does send a message to the students, a message that in some few cases stays with the students for their whole life. Yet I think we’ve been, as a rule, more attentive to the message we mean to send than to the message we’ve actually been sending. How do you find out what message you’ve actually been sending? Well, by watching carefully at what message the students pick up. And I’m suggesting that one such message – one you can check by listening carefully to the students and ex-students in your area – is this one: Math is about getting the right answer. There is a right answer, and there is one right answer. The teacher has the right answer, and I don’t. And the teacher won’t give it to me. And I am powerless in this arena. And math isn’t really for me.
One way a kid can reclaim their power is to do like Danae and remake some of the rules of the game. Yet the rule she hasn’t remade is the one about the importance of the right answer.