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

Click the cover to read a free preview!


©2019 Leading in Context LLC

Failure is Part of Innovation

By Linda Fisher Thornton

To Innovate, Rethink the Blueprint

If we just try to make something better using the design blueprint that we’ve always used, it is very difficult to innovate. Using the blueprint we have used in the past ties us to the assumptions and limitations of that blueprint.

Rebuild the Basic Design

Using our existing infrastructure, plan, model, specs or blueprint will keep us locked into the assumptions that we used to create them. In order to freshen our approach, we need to look broadly at consumer and business trends, and build a new set of assumptions.

Once we have reframed our assumptions, we can craft something completely different. Reframing our assumptions helps us do more than just make a newer version of the old product.

See Failure as a Necessary Step

Benjamin Franklin said “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”  Henry Ford spoke from experience when he said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

A culture that deals well with failure helps fuel innovation. When we create a new blueprint based on a new set of assumptions, it is likely that there will be some failures before a final product is ready for market.

“Failure is a necessary part of the innovation process because from failure comes learning, iteration, adaptation, and the building of new conceptual and physical models through an iterative learning process. Almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures.”

Edward D. Hess, Darden Graduate School of Business, in Creating an Innovative Culture: Accepting Failure as Necessary, Forbes, June 20, 2012

Seeing failure as a necessary learning step creates the kind of culture where talented, creative people can do their best work.

“Leaders who see failure as a necessary part of trying new things will encourage innovation and engage creative employees. Instead of firing or blaming when people make mistakes, we can put them up on an ‘innovation learning’ board as a necessary learning step in the process of innovating.”

Valeria Moltoni in Innovation and Failure, Fast Company Expert Blog Post.

Embrace Uncertainty and Possibility

To lead for innovation, we need to become comfortable not having the “right” answers, and instead think about possibilities. In innovation, uncertainty is not uncomfortable – it gives us the space to recreate what we do.

When we rebuild assumptions we can create better solutions that meet multiple needs or solve multiple problems.

“Innovative thinking is not reliant on past experience or known facts. It imagines a desired future state
and figures out how to get there. It is intuitive and open to possibility. Rather than identifying right
answers or wrong answers, the goal is to find a better way and explore multiple possibilities. Ambiguity
is an advantage, not a problem. It allows us to ask, ‘what if?'”

David Horth, Center for Creative Leadership and Dan Buchner, Continuum, Innovation Leadership: How to Use Innovation to Lead Effectively, Work Collaboratively and Drive Results, 2009, ccl.org

Think about how well you support possibility thinking and innovation as you answer the questions below.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Do we accept failure as a necessary part of learning or do we punish people who try new things and make mistakes?

2. Where do we need to rethink our assumptions about how we do our work or how we design our product?

3. What is it about our existing blueprint that isn’t working any more? How will we rethink it to bring it up to date?


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 

%d bloggers like this: