Are You Living a Multiple Choice Life?


The other day on the internet a woman posted this picture of her 5-year-old with a pencil in her hand and her head bowed over a piece of paper.  Her face was the image of despair—she was trying to do her math problems and just couldn’t get two of the problems right.   Under the picture, the woman wrote, “The only picture of my daughter that I hate.”(see the whole story at

The picture could have been me except that I was in 9th grade and taking algebra for the first time.  We had just moved to Cass Lake that fall–a month into the school year. I had started algebra with a teacher up in Babbitt who threw chalk and erasers at students when they didn’t get it right.  As bad as that was, I then had to switch schools and try to pick up where the new class was.  I was struggling terribly with algebra.  My folks hired me a tutor, but the equations just didn’t make sense to me.  Nothing made sense to me.  And the more I tried, the harder it got.  I remember sitting one night at the dining room table and just breaking into tears of frustration.

I felt just like that little girl in the picture.  I clicked into the comment box and wrote, “Child Abuse in the name of Education.”

Friday night and again Saturday morning I was reviewing the new Common Core Standards ( which are now being pushed down the throat of public education.  (Okay, so I pass my Friday night with this fascinating reading.  What can I say–I’m an education geek.) Anyway, here are two of the standards posted for Sixth Grade Writing.

  •  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  •  Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.


Over morning coffee I read a few of the standards to Milt.  Oddly, I was not really put off by the concepts in the standards—but how these standards would be taught and measured by a bullying educational system.

I’ve been thinking a lot about learning versus education lately.  You wouldn’t think there would be such a canyon between these two words.  In fact, you would think they would be as close as twin sisters who always understand what the other is thinking.  But instead our schools drift further and further away from how people actually learn.

In my mind the soul of learning and education is not about the questions you get right (in a multiple choice box)–but about whether you are asking the right questions.   When our questions are tied directly to the things we care most about, they naturally lead to discovery and deeper inquiry both about who we are and the world in which we find ourselves. We love this kind of learning.  The goal of education, at the very least, should be to guide us in asking better questions.

And here is the irony–in truth, most of our fundamental questions have no answers.  Why war?  Why did my best friend commit suicide?  What is my place and purpose?  What am I responsible for or to?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

It seems like a great paradox that our educational systems are so tied to getting the right answer but life is filled with questions for which we have no answers.  The human brain awakens to a good problem to solve, a question to be answered.  Asking the right questions not only makes us feel good and awakens the brain to exploration and excitement—the quest alone seems to add meaning and purpose.

Unless we are taught to ask only questions that have a “right” answer.

I remember Joseph Chilton Pearce talking about the amazing energy that rises up in the emerging adolescent.  He talks about the feeling of “a grape bursting in the throat.”  I vividly remember that incredible feeling of awakening out of childhood to find a wide, black universe of unanswerable questions.  I didn’t know then that I would one day be 60 years old and staring at the same wide, black, beautiful universe and still have no real answers.  We were (and are) eyes wide open on the world.

The nature and quality of my questions may have changed in 45 years—or maybe not.  I think when people ask only small questions they get a small life.  Questions like how can I get a new cell phone, or will so and so like me if I say what I mean, or am I too fat, too skinny, too old . . . offer no sustenance to a hungry mind and soul.  In fact, it deadens and flattens life.

My questions may have been too large, too hauntingly open-ended, my questions may still keep me awake at night staring out the window at a sliver of silvery moon—but I would not kill those questions just to be a tiny bit more comfortable in my own skin.

I like to itch and burn with questions.  I feel alive—a student of mystery and deep inquiry asking impossible questions in an uncertain world.

How sad if we were to let “education” kill that burning desire to find answers to our most heart-felt questions.  Children are filled with that desire to know.  I remember my son when he was just little asking me, “Mom, if God is in all things and all people . . . do you think he feels crowded?”

Don’t you love a great question?

So, what questions are you asking?  Are you more concerned about getting it right than expanding it outward?  Are you taking enough risks?  Are your questions big enough–or are you just filling in the multiple choice boxes?


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Are You Living a Multiple Choice Life? — 8 Comments

  1. Fantastic, Jamie. Our children have so much pressure on them in the public school system. The destination has so much more emphasis than the journey. I fear that pushes kids to be driven to constant success, when we learn the most by being allowed to make mistakes. I, too, had a bad experience with math in school. It’s amazing how much more sense the subject makes to me, now that the pressure to understand it is gone (and that bully of a teacher is out of the equation). That pressure, along with a narrow and strictly defined view of our history and the world, are among the reasons we have decided to homeschool.

  2. I too loved the column. Sarah, I appreciate and commend you to take on the task of home schooling. I know I could never do it. My wife (first) and I tried like crazy to find a decent school to send our kids. The Waldorf school was the best, but it didn’t last. We tried the catholic schools – they were a little better. 2 of my kids ended up in “alternative” schools because they just couldn’t take the regular schools. Everybody seems to have made it into adulthood, but I don’t think any of them had a great experience in school (well, maybe Murray) – I know that it was rare if anybody came home from school excited about what had happened that day.

    Thanks Jamie – really a good one.

  3. Thanks, Milt! I’m terrified of all the “what ifs,” to be honest. However, the importance of Escher’s education propels me forward. We think this will be the best fit for him and he very much wants to learn at home.

  4. This indeed is a good one, Jamie. Thank you.

    I took my son out of school, to “unschool” him after fourth grade, when he would spend half his evening trying to concentrate on math problems. Ick. He’s a sponge when he’s learning about something he loves, which is a wide range of things, naturally, including math.

    For myself, your ideas about whether we are looking for the “right answer” is helpful in understanding the anxiety I am currently feeling in massage school, working on people in our public clinic, in an assembly-line-like setting, or so it feels to me. I think I am imposing on myself a need to “get it right,” in a situation where I really want to be listening to my intuition.. It’s bringing up old layers of fear-of-disapproval, which stem, in part, I’m sure, from years in childhood where there were so much need for the right answer…

    Thanks for all the food for thought.

  5. Jamie, You have expressed my concern and horror about our educational system and the road it has taken which has produced stress in both students and teachers alike. The pressure to have test scores that meet state standards or be labeled as a failing school has not proven to be successful. I wonder how people can expect that a punitive system will “straighten” up teachers and children.
    I will forever be an advocate of indvidually based, experiential education where finding out things that do not work are considered as much a success as finding out what is true and right.
    Both of us came from a traditional system and we have come to see what generates curiosity and enlightenment, maybe that fact can give us hope that others are working toward the same goal. It sounds like both Milt and Lorna understand how important the inquiry method is for learners. I have been hopeful of late reading and listening to educators at decision making levels express concern about state mandated testing. Maybe the pendulum is starting to shift again. Let’s hope it shifts toward human needs instead of curricular structures.

  6. Thanks to all of you who are posting comments on this important issue. I’ve become immersed in educational topics again (as you can tell) and am so constantly amazed at how thousands and thousands and thousands of people can see the obvious and yet we remain stuck in an ever-tightening noose of old school education. Pah! Milt sent me a NY Times article this morning about how three-year-olds are now being diagnosed A.D.H.D. and put on drugs. It is disgusting that we blame the child when all he or she wants to do is . . . be a child.

  7. Thanks, Jamie, again for focusing on an essential issue! Just want to add one thing to the last sentence in your 2/24 at 3:02 comment:
    “. . . the child when all he or she wants to do is” be a figurer-outer, an asker of questions like “what IS this?” “how does this work?” etc., and to figure out how the world works, how to make it work for him or her, to be empowered. If only schools–and parents and everyone–respected and admired children as born thinkers and learners,rather than dressing them in cute clothes and talking baby-talk to them. If only children were treated, especially in school, as creative thinkers figuring things out as they were born to do!

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