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Secrets of Good Lessons

"The Right Process" v. "The Right Answer"

Why emphasize process over answers?  (look at examples)


We generate knowledge so quickly that today's right answers might well be wrong or irrelevant tomorrow.   However, those who know that right answers are generated by academic processes, and can change over time, will be as valuable tomorrow as today.  They'll be posed to learn new processes as they're developed, and to apply old processes to new information to generate new answers.

Einstein didn't disprove Newton, he showed that Newtonian mechanics were correct only in certain circumstances.  Beyond those circumstances other rules apply.   Darwin didn't disprove religion, he showed that accepted religious answers to certain questions about the physical world needed to be rethought.  Physicians and pharmacists have not shown shamans to be frauds, just that shamanistic knowledge when processed by 20th century medical technology can produce more reliable remedies.   These situations show that when we as a species discover new information, then reevaluate old answers that once seemed absolutely and eternally correct, we can progress in ways previously unimaginable.  However, history also shows that dogmatists who cling tenaciously to answers, old or new, can drag us into brutal conflict. 


Most interesting contemporary questions generate conflicting answers.  

Don't believe me.  Try tuning your TV or radio to some sort of balanced political coverage, reading a newspaper that tries to be objective, attending a scholarly conference, or reading a set of books or articles written from different viewpoints on any topic of your choice.

Most of us, especially when we're young, have not developed the knowledge or skills to rationally judge them.  However, we can learn the general processes people use to generate answers, then check to see which answers came from properly applied rational processes.

Does this mean that answers are unimportant, and that we should focus solely on process?  Of course not.  Processes generate answers, and those answers can be right or wrong.  It is important to know how to evaluate them.   But that is the second step.  The first is to generate, not memorize, answers.   Failure to show your students how to do both is to do them a great disservice.

Here is an example to think about.     

I asked a group of students to research an answer to the question, "What percentage of 1996 firearm deaths were deemed murders?".  What I wanted them to submit was clear proof that they had identified the formula for calculating a percentage, found defensible numbers to put into it, then calculated without error.  I taught them this process.  However, using the process properly can lead to different "correct" answers.  Here's how.

As far as I know, there is only one way to calculate a percentage.  One divides the value of the significant part by the value of the whole, multiplies by 100, rounds off if necessary, then adds a percent sign (%).  Calculating correctly results in only one correct answer for any pair of numbers.  Miscalculating of course can result in any number of wrong answers.  The problem is that different resources provide different numbers from which to start.

The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2000, in a table on page 896, cites the National Safety Council to show that there were 33,750 firearm deaths in the U.S. in 1996.  The table also shows there were 14,037 firearm homicides.  Using these numbers, I calculated 41.59% of 1996 firearm deaths were murders.

Liking to examine multiple sources, I also went to Information Please Online. Searching for "firearm deaths", I found a table titled Deaths by firearms, 1979-1997.  It cited numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to show that 34,034 people died by firearm in 1996.  As this table had no figures for murder victims, I searched a second time for "firearm murders".  I came up with a table titled Murder Victims, by Weapons Used.  This table, citing the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports for 1997, showed there were 10,744 firearm murders in 1996. Using these numbers, I calculated 31.57% of 1996 firearm deaths were murders.

So which is the "right" answer, 31.57% or 41.59%?  Or perhaps something else based on a set of numbers from a source I have yet to see.  At the moment, I'm not competent to decide.  I don't think my students are either.  However, if they know the process, they'll be better able to judge as they gain more knowledge to deal with this and similar problems throughout their lives.

If you like to think about common statistical information, see the Statistical Assessment Service.  You'll find a lot of food for thought.

Here is an example from the 2000 presidential campaign.   

In mid-March 2000, after virtually securing the nominations of their respective parties, the campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore aired two conflicting TV advertisements.  Both centered on the education issue.  The Bush campaign claimed that, "Under Al Gore and Bill Clinton, national reading scores stagnated."  The Gore campaign responded, "Now, for the first time, reading scores in the key grades of 4th, 8th and 12th are going up across America."  It turns out that both claims were made based on the same data, and both were true.  For the analysis that supports my assertion, and illustrates the process that produces such conflicts, take a look at the following reports.

From the New York Times (a free registration is required for access)

Bush on Education (March 18, 2000)

Gore Retaliates With an Anti-Bush Commercial on Education (March 21, 2000)

For an ongoing look at the campaigns' ad war, check in periodically with the Times' Campaign Ad Index.

From National Public Radio

an analysis of the latest campaign ads on Morning Edition (March 21, 2000)  

To hear this report, scroll down the browser window that will open until you see the title "Latest Campaign Ads".  Click on the link for 14.4 or 28.8 (whichever best matches your modem speed).  You'll need the Real Player browser plug-in installed for your Web browser in order to listen. lesson ideas that illustrate this principle   

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original web posting: Tuesday, December 8, 1998
last modified: Thursday, February 02, 2012