5 Reasons Why We Want Learning and Not “Right Answers”

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Often when we test, our purpose is to assess progress toward learning objectives.  But there’s an inherent problem with over-testing or focusing too much on test scores. Testing can de-motivate learners. If our purpose is to improve learning, then we need to pay close attention to how testing impacts the motivation to learn. 

What Is Our Focus When We Test? 


When we test, we are comparing the performance of a person to a fixed standard. So the focus is on perfection. Since perfection is subjective, we are judging how close each person comes to a subjective measure of where they “should” be. Judging can demotivate learners, since it takes individual learning and meaning out of the equation and compares everyone to a subjective standard. When we test, feedback comes in the forms of marks indicating “wrong answers.”


When we measure progress, improvement, skill development and learning (without focusing on test scores), the focus is on learning. Since learning is meaningful individually, the feedback can motivate the learner to continue learning.

“The desire to learn, to pursue the truth at all costs, cannot be taught. It can only be awakened by example, shown as a living reality. The greatest task of a teacher is to demonstrate, by her or his own example, the desirability and attraction, the unparalleled invigoration and joy, of being a lifetime learner and pursuer of truth.”

Vance G. Morgan, PH.D., Professor of Philosophy, Providence College,  in The Right Question, Providence College Magazine, Spring 2013

Which do we want – perfection or learning? Here are 5 reasons why I think we want learning and not “right answers:”

5 Reasons Why We Want Learning and Not “Right Answers”

  1. The stress from worrying about how someone will perform on a test can cause stress and interferes with learning. 
  2. “Perfection” is difficult to define – We could get a different answer from each person we asked. How will we be sure that the questions and answers represent current and relevant thinking across disciplines?
  3. There will always be a need for us to learn and adapt to new research and insights. The subjective measure of “perfection” on tests will need to change constantly to keep up – who revises their tests twice a month?
  4.  Testing can demotivate learners by counting “wrong” their higher level thinking that doesn’t fit into the “right choices.”
  5. We need to provide support and encouragement more than we judge and correct so that learning is enjoyable.

Is Testing “The Right Answer?”

Testing is a form of judgment, where we compare someone’s answers to the answers someone else came up with that were determined to be the “right” answers. This means that we may have to count the answer wrong if someone gives a more complex answer than the one we are looking for, or a more creative one, or a more current one incorporating newer research!

According to Harvard School of Education Professor Daniel Horetz, “there are limits to the meaning we can derive from test scores…The problem, in Koretz’s view, is that we tend to overestimate what tests can do. Tests are not designed to summarize all that students and schools can do.”

Because schools are evaluated based on test scores, there is a tendency to focus the test questions on the minimum level of knowledge required, rather than on a high standard of accomplishment.

Sandra Stotsky, Professor of Educational Reform at the University of Arkansas says that “Test driven, or force-fed, learning can not enrich and promote the traits necessary for life success.”

The Need For Positive Feedback 

Before you test, think about your purpose. Is it to judge someone against one interpretation of the “right” answer, or to determine whether someone has mastered complex content that includes many variables?  To support good judgment and decision making, we need to focus more time on good judgment and decision making and less time on narrowing things down to one right answer. Our ultimate goal is to ignite the love for learning, and to encourage learners to continue to stretch and grow. That will require lots of support and positive feedback (and minimal testing).

Also see: Testing, Teaching, Learning PBS.org

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©2019 Leading in Context LLC

The Future of Learning Isn’t About “Knowing”


learning leader, leadership future, learning future,

By Linda Fisher Thornton

If we want to prepare leaders to handle complex challenges, we need to move beyond shallow approaches that focus on knowledge building. 

We need to help people learn to think deeply (beyond symptoms to complex, systemic causes) and broadly across disciplines as they work to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders. To accomplish this, the way we approach learning must change.  

It is becoming increasingly important to develop learning experiences that lead to real change – experiences that change mindsets, stretch capabilities, and prepare people for good citizenship and successful futures.

Why Does Learning Need to Change?

“The transformation from teacher-led learning to self-directed learning to self-determined learning will provide learners with a range of competencies and skills needed to succeed in the modern global economy… Education should prepare learners to tackle collaborative problem-solving scenarios that are persistent and lack clear solutions. Real-world challenges are highly complex, often ill-defined and interdisciplinary in nature, spanning multiple domains (social, economic, political, environmental, legal and ethical). Learners must have opportunities to reflect on their ideas, hone their analytical skills, strengthen their critical and creative thinking capacities, and demonstrate initiative.”

Cynthia Luna Scott. THE FUTURES of LEARNING 1: Why must learning content and methods change in the 21st century? UNESCO Education Research and Foresight, Paris. [ERF Working Papers Series, No. 13]

How Does Learning Need to Change?

“Globally competent learners are careful to consider previous approaches and the perspectives of others, they act ethically and collaboratively – in creative ways – to contribute to local, regional or global development. Globally competent learners do not presume they are equipped to handle complex challenges alone. They reflect candidly on their capacity to complete an assigned task and seek out collaborative opportunities to join with others whose strengths complement their own.”

Cynthia Luna Scott. THE FUTURES of LEARNING 2: What kind of learning for the 21st century? UNESCO Education Research and Foresight, Paris. [ERF Working Papers Series, No. 14].

Knowledge is wonderful, but it isn’t the key to success in a global society. It definitely shouldn’t be the central focus of learning in a world where information is literally at our fingertips. Instead of focusing on KNOWING, we need to be encouraging DISCOVERY, CONNECTION, ETHICAL THINKING and ADAPTATION. 


The Future of Learning, Dr. Miriam Leis, Foresight Researcher

12 Trends Shaping the (Responsible, Human) Future of Learning, Leading in Context Blog

Teaching and Learning For a Sustainable Future, UNESCO

Imagining the Future of Leadership, Leading in Context Blog


Top 100 Leadership Blog

CMOE Top 100 Socially Shared Leadership Blogs 2015




Prepare Your Leaders For Ethical Leadership Future – Help Them Learn To See Through The 7 Lenses®. 

Includes how ethical expectations are increasing, and what you can do to stay ahead of the curve.

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Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership®

©2016 Leading in Context LLC

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