A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an amusing internet-based image of a kindergartener's mistake on a test. The item in question asked the test-taker to "Circle one thing that every living thing needs to survive." It presented four choices: a puppy, air, a chair, and sneakers. The test paper showed a large, unambiguous circle around the puppy. The person responsible for grading the paper placed a big X across the question number, presumably indicating that this was the wrong choice.
The snickers that accompanied the photograph of the graded test paper involved a tee-hee-hee about how cute it was that a kindergartener envisioned a puppy as essential to life. Most of the people who posted or forwarded the image were probably adults who furtively wished for a simpler stage of life when all a person really needed was a puppy. The notion was certainly worth a smile.
A bigger, not-so-funny problem lurked just beyond the chuckle. The test presented a slate of choices, and none of them was actually a correct answer for something every living thing needed to survive.
Any child with a pet goldfish would have known that air wasn't the answer. Likewise, chairs aren't essential because a person can sit on a sofa, a stool, or even the ground. A compassionate child might know enough about poverty to realize that some kids don't have sneakers, and despite this limitation, those deprived children are still alive. By process of elimination, only one choice remained. The puppy.
The puppy even makes good sense if one envisions it as representing offspring and interprets "every living thing" at the level of a species. Every kind of living thing needs to be able to reproduce or its species will not survive. Reading all this into the question is probably too much to ask of a kindergartener, but with a slate of obviously wrong answers from which to choose, what's a smart kid supposed to do?
I recall a similar situation one of my own children faced in kindergarten. The test item presented four pictures: a child, a fish, a table, and a dog. The instructions said to cross out the item that didn't belong in the group. My child crossed out the fish.
During teacher conferences, the paper with the "wrong" answer was paraded as reason to wonder if my child had the intellectual abilities required to succeed as a student. The "right" answer was the table. She explained as if I were the five year old: the table was the only thing that was not living.
I summoned my child and asked, "Why did you cross out the fish?" The answer came with surety: "No legs." It made perfect sense to me.
I explained to the teacher that the answer she advocated assumed a hierarchy of categories that failed to consider other points of view. Unfortunately for my child's score, the test didn't allow for other points of view. The answer key gave the "correct" answer, and that was the end of the discussion.
The continued ubiquity of standardized tests has ensured that the problem persists. These kinds of assessment tools have trained us to believe that for every question there is a right answer—or at least a best answer. In the process we've learned to laugh when someone else's real-life responses to the issues at hand seem naive or simplistic. We no longer bother asking follow-up questions. We rarely make an attempt to see things from a different perspective. We don't even seem to care about what the other person intended. We just focus on spinning any alternate point of view into a joke.
It happens in science, in religion, in politics, and in just about every other field of human endeavor. Seriously given answers are waved off as silly and discarded simply because we don't understand them immediately or because they challenge our own perspectives.
A better strategy might be one that tries to understand the rationale behind the ideas others offer. Even if we disagree with their conclusions, we move toward mutual respect by acknowledging when an authentic effort has been made. We might even learn to see something that seemed as obvious as air in a new way.