Show Your Work

This post has been one of many sitting in my drafts, but I decided to post it even though it is a few years old because it offers an opportunity for self reflection.

My son was doing math homework a few weeks ago, he came across a problem that went something like this:

Mr. Jones had 3.75 ounces of Kool-Aid and he put them into cups of 0.25 ounces.  How many cups of Kool-Aid was he able to pour?  

I was checking email while he was completing his homework, but looked up when I heard him mumble under his breath. “Ugh, it’s 15, but I have to show my work.” I asked him why he was frustrated and he said because he knew the answer but he had to show all of the steps.  Knowing his teacher puts a strong emphasis on Number Talks, I told him I’m sure that’s not the case, I’ll just write a little note that says that you solved it mentally.

The next day he came home and brought me his homework.  He said well I got 21/22 because I didn’t show my work on the problem.  I was perplexed so I emailed his teacher to discuss.  I thought this must be a misunderstanding.

The reason I share this story is because I think sometimes as educators, we lose sight of what our goals are for students in mathematics and we can send a message that we ourselves do not believe in.

Let me first say that I greatly respect my son’s teacher and that I know that she wants what is best for him.  She uses a number talks routine in her classroom and has students work on mental math to build their number sense strategies on a regular basis.  However, I think my son is confused as to when he is “allowed” to use mental math and when he has to calculate on paper.

As I reflect on this experience, I think back to when I was a teacher and I made graphic organizers for my students to “draw a picture” to solve.  Although I think this is a good way to get students to visualize problems they haven’t encountered, I now feel that I overused this method and I can recall some students who were frustrated by this practice.

It is important that we not lose focus of our purpose and that we constantly reflect on our practice to ensure our philosophy matches up with our actions in the classroom.  It is easy to get bogged down by state testing, mandates, homework practices, etc. but we owe it to our students to check ourselves and question our practices when it leads to frustration.

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