Classroom Discussions: “There Are No Wrong Answers” Is the Wrong Answer

“In this discussion, all opinions are equal. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is–there are no wrong answers.”

Haven’t we all heard this? Teachers use the above concept to preface all kinds of conversations and assignments. 

I can not actually say that I haven’t: I would hope that I haven’t, but sometimes in flustered, blushing moments we fall back on phrases and concepts that have been ingrained into us since we were small, and I frankly do not remember whether or not one or two such nervous moments have found me, too, an unwilling ambassador of this concept.

I think I can see an honest desire on the part of many teachers to say something like “all opinions are equal” to help students feel comfortable to speak, and to cover their own backs in case of criticism that they shut down opposing viewpoints. I get this, really. We want to show our students every day how much we care about them. We want them to know that conversations in our classrooms are respectful and kind. Students are often timid, especially about their own ideas, and we want them to feel comfortable speaking and participating in conversation–even if they disagree with us. Moreover, we want our students to learn to think on their own, and we do not want them to be afraid to voice opinions and develop their own positions.

However, as well-intentioned as it might be, a statement such as “all opinions are equal” or “there are no wrong answers” is a dangerous cop-out for both the speaker and the listener. In fact, it is a pernicious lie.*

It is relatively easy to conduct a classroom discussion on the premise that all opinions are equal. We can affirm whatever our students say, and when we affirm what they say, they feel affirmed as individuals and grow in confidence. A discussion that operates on these grounds is, moreover, easy to keep within the bounds of respect. We tell anyone who disagrees with the speaker that everyone’s opinion is just as good as their own, so we cannot judge their point of view. Tension cannot escalate (at least we tell ourselves) when we eliminate the possibility for tension at all; there cannot be tension over who is right because we are all right. Thus we tell ourselves and thus we lie to our students. 

By contrast, acknowledging that there are right answers, though we might not all agree, raises the stakes of the conversation. Suddenly, instead of getting together to share how we feel, discussions become a quest for truth–and the danger with such quests is that some people are wrong and may find out that they are wrong. We cower at the thought of being wrong or, perhaps worse, having to declare others to be wrong. We are afraid that our students will not understand that the truth or falsehood of one’s opinions has no bearing on the value of that person.

After all, compared with saying “all opinions are equal,” it takes much more nuance, more grace, more wisdom, more diplomacy, more courage to say, “I believe you are wrong, but I still respect you”; and on the listener’s part, it takes much more generosity, magaminity, patience, confidence, and true charity to respond to such a statement not with offense, but with, “I believe that your contention lies solely with my idea, and not with me as a person.”

How much easier it is just to say, “That is true for you; this is true for me.” We then need not distinguish between critique of idea and critique of person; there is no danger of being misunderstood or mischaracterized as unkind or tyrannical. 

In other words, it feels like hiding behind “that is true for you, this is true for me” is the safer route. However, there is real and present danger in doing so. 

The first danger is that, by approving all ideas, our attempt to encourage clear and confident thinking will achieve precisely the opposite: we will actually deprive our students of the opportunity to defend their thoughts and hone their reasoning skills. Students will certainly be comfortable knowing that whatever they say will be approved, but comfort is not always sufficient. Sometimes we all need the slight discomfort of knowing that only true ideas can and should be approved: the good and refining pressure of the truth compels us to sift through our thoughts, discard the false ones, and retain the true ones.

Certainly, comfort and safety, too, are necessary in the classroom, but these will come if the teacher successfully communicates to the students the absolutely vital difference between one’s value as a person and the correctness of one’s ideas–between the need to respect all persons and the need to evaluate the truth of all ideas. 

The second danger lies in the fact that to tell our students that all opinions are equal is to allow free expression of all ideas but one. What is that one idea that is not allowed? The idea that all opinions are not equal. What happens when someone says that his or her own opinion is right and another’s is wrong? Naturally, that person is told that such a position has no place in this conversation, because here, all opinions are equal. 

Thus, the idea that some things are true and other things are false is not allowed in such a conversation. There is danger here because in the name of allowing all, we will have stamped out voices that believe in truth. Thinking that we are tolerant, generous, respectful people, who mirror in our classrooms the nation’s commitment to free speech, we will be failing to allow free speech at all. 

Such stamping and silencing leads to the third danger, which is as follows: to say all opinions are equal is to deny, on a basic level, the existence of truth. To declare that no opinion is wrong is also to say that no opinion is right, and once we have arrived there, we find ourselves denying the very Truth who made us and, in fact, the entire purpose of school altogether, which is to learn truth. 

In the name of making ourselves safe and our students comfortable, we can deny truth in our classrooms, but we must be prepared for the consequences. We are raising up a generation who seeks not to find what is true, but to promote anything and protect all speech except speech that affirms the existence of truth, because they are being taught that truth does not exist. We might think that we are doing our students a favor by helping them gain confidence, but in the end, if we teach them to deny truth, we are but blind shepherds kindly and gently guiding our sheep off a treacherous cliff.

*I must mention that there are a few limited contexts in which all opinions may be equal, but these are not the sorts of contexts which generally arise in classroom conversations. Certainly, anyone can have his or her own favorite color or favorite season, but most academic conversations revolve around topics to which there is right and wrong answers, conversations such as “What point was the author trying to make,” “What can be learned from this historical event,” “Is this a good choice for this character to make in the book,” and even “Is this a beautiful painting.”