Wednesday / May 29

Wrong Answers—Dead Ends or Detours for Learning?

Consider two classrooms in which teachers are posing questions to students in order to check for understanding.

In classroom A, the teacher asks a question and calls on a student whose hand is raised. The student answers incorrectly. The teacher reacts by saying, “Good try. Let’s see if someone else can help you out.” She then selects a student whom she believes will have the right answer. The second student provides an acceptable response; the teacher affirms the answer and moves on to the next question.

The teacher in classroom B poses a question, pauses to afford all students the opportunity to think, scans the room, and names a student to respond. The student’s answer reveals a significant misconception. The teacher pauses for 5 seconds or so to allow the student time to self-correct. When the student fails to modify his response, the teacher asks, “What makes you say that?” The student provides a rationale based on erroneous reasoning. The teacher follows up with questions to scaffold the student’s thinking toward a correct understanding. Next, the teacher names a listening student to paraphrase what she heard and indicate whether she agrees or disagrees and why—or to ask a question to clarify her thinking. Other students chime in, and a discussion ensues.

Most will agree that the wrong answer in classroom A represents a dead end in learning for the initial respondent—and perhaps for many classmates. Simply hearing a correct answer does not automatically clarify misunderstandings and advance learning. This widely used instructional strategy—of questioning to get the right answer on the floor—did enable the class to continue the march through the curriculum for the day. In contrast, the detour occasioned by the incorrect response in classroom B provided the opportunity for learning by all.

What do these contrasting scenarios suggest about the beliefs of each teacher? About the two teachers’ planning for classroom questioning? About the expectations each teacher is setting for student engagement in the process? About the teachers’ sense of self-efficacy and their respective views of student efficacy?

Teacher efficacy.

Let’s focus first on the question related to teacher efficacy beliefs as displayed by the teacher who welcomed mistakes and errors as opportunities for learning. The notion of using wrong answers or confusion as occasions for learning is one of Hattie’s “six signposts toward excellence” in school and classroom environments (2012, 19). In order to actualize this process, teachers must believe that they “can perform the necessary activities to influence student learning,” a good working definition of teacher efficacy (Donohoo, 2017, 3). Extensive research links individual teacher efficacy beliefs to “a broad range of productive teaching behaviors, such as setting high expectations for students, maintaining on-task behavior, emphasizing student inquiry over teacher-to-student information transfer, and concentrating on academic instruction” (Forman, et al., 188). Teacher B exhibited a high level of self-efficacy as evidenced by the high expectations she set for her students and her emphasis on student inquiry.

High expectations.

Implicit in classroom B were teacher expectations related to student engagement in questioning including:

  • Respond with what you think you know about the question.
  • Use follow-up questions to reflect on and, if appropriate, to modify your response.
  • Listen actively to the speaking classmate, and be prepared to react to his or her reasoning.
  • Pose questions of your own when you are confused or curious about the focus of the question or about a comment offered by a peer.
  • Persist in your efforts to understand; believe in your capacity to learn.

She effectively communicated to her students, “I think you can,” and provided scaffolding to enable them to achieve success thereby building individual student efficacy. Further, by strategically engaging students to interact with one another to reinforce and extend thinking and learning, she promoted collective efficacy within the classroom community.

Emphasis on inquiry.

This teacher employs questioning to inquire into her students’ understanding and to support their inquiry into their own and others’ reasoning. This contrasts with the traditional use of questions as vehicles to highlight or transfer information from the text or the teacher to students. Consider how teacher B’s inquiry into an incorrect response enabled her to obtain information from multiple students related to their progress toward learning intentions. By getting behind her students’ thinking, she secured valuable feedback to inform her next steps in instruction. This type questioning is planned and intentional, not accidental or serendipitous, and calls upon teachers to commit to the following prior to a lesson:

  • Frame a limited number of quality questions (2-4) that are aligned with daily learning intentions, at an appropriate level of cognitive difficulty, and worded to communicate with and engage students.
  • For each question, specify the knowledge and reasoning requirements for an acceptable student response.
  • For each question, generate common misconceptions and/or errors (based upon past experience) together with possible follow-up questions.
  • Decide upon a response strategy for each of the focus questions taking into account both the appropriateness of the strategy to the question and its potential to engage all students in thinking and offering a response. (Walsh & Sattes, 2017)

Collaborative planning.

The above planning activities are best undertaken collaboratively, by a team operating within a broader professional learning community. In such a setting, teachers provide both psychological and practical support to one another and, along the way, contribute to the development of collective efficacy. For teachers who have not thought about or committed to using wrong answers for learning, the opportunity to engage in collegial dialogue about the benefits and challenges of this practice can provide the courage to experiment. Collaborative formulation of questions, generation of possible moves in response to both correct and incorrect answers, and consideration of appropriate response structures empower all team members to use these practices in the lesson being planned. Each team member benefits from the thinking of colleagues and feels supported by them; the collaborative planning creates the feeling of “we’re all in this together.” A high-functioning team takes its planning to another level by making decisions about how to assess the effectiveness of planned activities. What information will each teacher collect during the lesson to bring back for team analysis? What inferences can they make about where they and their students are in making the most of learning detours? How can they improve future cycles of classroom questioning?

Culture to support inquiry.

Teacher planning for and commitment to inquiry are necessary, but not sufficient conditions, to its success with a group of students. If students are to participate in the learning journey with all of its detours, they require psychological safely that enables them to respond with their thinking whether they are certain or not of their answer. Such safety, which supports risk-taking, results from relational trust—the belief that their teacher and peers alike care about and will support their learning, not ridicule or devalue them if they respond incorrectly. Very importantly, this type culture facilitates the transformation of teacher expectations for student engagement into classroom norms, shared ways of approaching the business of inquiry and learning.

Avoiding dead ends in learning is a challenging goal. Among the key requirements are:

  • a belief in one’s ability to negotiate unexpected turns in the questioning-responding process,
  • purposeful planning to create questions and supportive strategies to make learning detours meaningful,
  • creation of high expectations for student engagement and structures that scaffold these,
  • co-creation with students of a culture built on trust that provides a safe space for students to learn through mistakes, and
  • a commitment to persist in use of this practice that differs significantly from the traditional and usual.

Using wrong answers for learning is, however, a high-payoff practice for both teachers and students. Scaffolding students to success in the form of corrected or extended understandings creates the energy and the efficacy needed to master ever more rigorous learning goals. Moving away from wrong answers diminishes efficacy and leaves too many students stranded at dead ends in learning.


Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Forman, M.L., Stosich, E. L., & Bocala, C. (2017) The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York: Routledge.

Walsh, J.A., & Sattes B.D. (2017). Quality questioning, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Written by

Jackie A. Walsh, Ph.D., focuses her writing and consulting on quality questioning for teachers and school leaders. A former teacher and long-time professional developer, she is passionate about partnering with clients to adopt questioning practices that support both student and adult learning. Jackie is co-author of Quality Questioning, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2017), Questioning for Classroom Discussion (ASCD, 2016), Thinking Through Quality Questioning (Corwin, 2011), and Leading Through Quality Questioning (Corwin, 2010). Contact Jackie at and follow her @Question2Think. 

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