Education Opinion

Guess Which Thing Is Not Like the Others

By Susan Graham — May 17, 2011 4 min read
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The little blonde five-year-old is excited. In September she gets to go to big kid school like her brother. She’ll ride the bus and she gets to go every day! Today she is going to meet with her future teacher. She is unaware that the purpose of the visit is to assess her present level of knowledge and her readiness for kindergarten. She doesn’t know it’s a test. She is pleased and curious about big school. Her mother is slightly anxious about her “doing well” on her test.

The teacher does the evaluation one on one. She engages the little girl in conversation to assess her language skills. She asks her to follow a set of sequenced tasks in order to get an idea about her ability to follow instructions. Of course there are some multiple choice questions on the assessment, but since pre-kindergartners can’t read and they lack the motor control to do a good job of bubbling, it’s necessary to use visual options and have the teacher read the questions. So the teacher shows the little girl a picture with four animals in a row. There is a horse, a pig, a duck and a rabbit. The teacher asks, “Can you tell me which animal is not like the others?”

“The horse,” replies the little girl without hesitation. (Her mother flinches in the back of the room.)

“Oh?” the teacher responds with a sort of questioning look. (She’s really only suppose to ask the questions on the form, not solicit explanations from the child.)

“Well,” the little girl explains, “the horse is the wrong size. Horses are big and the others are smaller but the horse and the duck are same size in your picture. That’s not right. Besides, the horse is gray and the other animals are white.” The little girl is right. In the black and white line drawings, the all the animals are about 2 inches tall, and the horse is pixilated to gray. The horse is not like the others. But she has given the wrong answer.

“I see,” says the teacher (breaking testing protocol) “Is there another animal that’s not like the others?”

“Yes,” the child answers brightly, “The pig!”

This wise and seasoned teacher throws caution to the wind and asks, “So, tell me why is the pig different?”

“The horse and the duck and the rabbit are all soft when you pet them, but the pig is rough. At the farm I didn’t like touching the pig. He was prickly!” the little girl explains.

The teacher smiles, raises her eyebrows, nods, and goes on to the next question. Two wrong responses tell her more about this child than any right answer could have. And the mother in the back of the room thinks about Antoine de Saint Exuprey’s Little Prince who explains that

Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

And there, ladies and gentleman is the problem with standardized multiple choice testing. The little girl didn’t realize that she was suppose to say “Duck, because, based on biological taxonomy, while all of these animals are Vertebrates, the horse, pig and rabbit are classified as part of the order Mammalia. The duck, on the other hand, is of the order Aves.” The problem is she didn’t know that she was supposed to give the grownup Right Answer rather than her own answer.

I’m grateful that the little girl in this story had a teacher who was more interested in what a child thinks than about proper testing protocols. Because that little girl was my daughter, Rebecca. And the kindergarten teacher, Mrs. King, honored and nurtured her sensory understanding of her world. She welcomed children into the adventure of learning by honoring the perspective of every child she taught.

Mrs. King couldn’t get away with that today. Right now, in schools around the country, kids are busy bubbling in The Right Answers. They’ve had Writing Practice Tests, Testing Skills Training, Reading Remediation, and Math Blast to prepare them to choose The Right Answers from among A, B. C, D or None of the Above. Their teachers have signed oaths promising that they will not talk to or support their students during the test. If a teacher were to engage a child in a discussion of a response like Mrs. King did, that would be a testing irregularity, and a testing irregularity could cost a teacher her job and bring shame and punishment on her school.

I’m sorry that we will never know what goes on in some children’s minds. If we don’t listen, how will we ever find out that that when a child such as that Little Prince show us what looks like a picture of hat, he might have drawn an elephant eaten by a boa constrictor? Who’s to say which answer is right? How much more might we learn by asking children “Can you tell me why you think that?”

So, in honor of all the Other Right Answers that we may never hear, let’s all sing the Sesame Street song

Can you guess which thing is not like the other? Can you guess which thing just doesn't belong? Can you guess which thing is not like the other by the time I finish this song?

And just for fun, try thinking outside the box Can you help me figure out how many ways each of our animal friends, the Horse, the Pig, the Duck, and the Rabbit is not like the others? Here’s a start:

The Horse:
The only one people ride.
The only one we don’t eat (at least here in the US)
The only one that says “Neigh”

The Pig:
The only one that digs with its nose
The only one with cloven hooves
The only one who says “Oink.”

The Duck:

The only one that can fly.
The only one with webbed feet.
The only one who says “Quack.”

The Rabbit:

The only one that lives in a hole in the ground.
The only one that hibernates.
The only one that, at least in story books, speaks English--often with a British accent.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.