Welcome to the 21st Century!

Once upon a time, a teacher could assign homework questions to students, and the students could be relied upon to do the work on their own.

Then writing was invented.

A little later, homework solutions manuals became popular (and Cliff notes, for those in the humanities).  Still later, you have the internet where, if you can’t find the answer to a question, the answer doesn’t exist.

This can be a source of dismay to some teachers:  How can they ask a question and prevent their students from simply looking up the answer?  There’s an easy answer to this:  You can’t.

You have to accept the reality that students will look up answers…and adjust your expectations accordingly.  For example, here’s a question that you could look up online:  How many 3-digit numbers increase their value when the digits are reversed?

As worded, the answer “37” is correct (or not…I’m not going to give it away).  All that’s necessary is for a student to enter the question into Google or post it onto a message board, and someone will happily supply the answer.  This makes it a bad question in the 21st century.

What would make this same question a better question?  One added instruction:  “Explain your reasoning process.”  One of three things will happen:

  • A student will work it out, and be able to explain their reasoning process.
  • A student will go online and get the answer.  If they’re honest, their explanation is “I had no clue, so I asked someone to tell me.”  Otherwise, they might try to come up with a reasoning process…that is completely nonsensical.
  • A student will go online and get the answer and the respondent will explain how they got it.  In order to explain the reasoning process, the student would have to sift through the explanation.  This means that, even though they didn’t originate the thought process, answering the question still has learning value.

What about the student who simply cuts-and-pastes someone else’s reasoning process? One way to limit this is to have the student explain it to you, and ask them to elaborate on each step.  If they didn’t properly assimilate the reasoning process, they won’t be able to explain it to you.

Of course, this relies on having the time to teach.  This is the greatest threat to effective teaching:  overloading the curriculum so material can’t be covered deeply; and overcrowding the classroom so that students can’t get the individual attention they need.

Fortunately, technology takes with one hand, but gives with the other.  One way to make it easier for teachers to devote more time to developing student understanding is the inverted or flipped classroom.

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