Marketers know that a product’s brand is everything. If a product is not selling to its potential, one solution is often to tweak the brand, or “rebrand” the product. Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their branding to KFC to de-emphasize ‘fried chicken” and appear to be a more healthy option. If it works in business, shouldn’t it work in education?
In math classrooms across the world, students are told on a regular basis to “show their work”. I wish I had a nickel for every time those words came out of my mouth during my educational career. It is certainly done with good intentions–it is critical that students are able to communicate mathematically. Not to mention the valuable feedback teachers receive when they analyze the “work” a student has shown.
My problem is not with the process, it’s with the words, so I have been experimenting with rebranding “show your work”.
As I see it, there are two major problems with asking students to show their work. First, the words hold a very negative connotation in the minds of students. It’s something they have to do. Furthermore, the words are often delivered in a way that is not conducive to cooperation. “John, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times, you’ve GOT to show your work.” “Valerie, I’m not taking this paper until you show your work!”
Second, many students don’t show their work because they don’t know what the heck it means! My favorite is the student who circles the multiple choice answer he thinks is correct and then x’s out the other choices. If you ask him, he is “showing his work”.
For my suggestions, I will address the second problem first. Students have to be specifically taught what it means to show mathematical thinking (see how I’m rebranding it?). This happens through a great deal of modeling and coaching. I’m blessed to work with small groups exclusively, so I am able to coach my students one-on-one, helping them to understand how to comprehend and make sense of each and every sentence in a math problem.
Now, to overcome the negative connotation of the words “show your work”, we have to stop using them. Think about it, when you are solving a problem do you think to yourself, “Hmmm, I’ve got to show my work.” I don’t think so. What I DO do, is make notes to myself as I interact with the problem. Those are now my go-to words when working with the students–I document my mathematical thinking by making notes as I interact with the problem.
I have been using this approach with my students for about a month now, and I am very pleased with the results. They seem more open to the process and, through coaching, they are learning how to take notes on their own and determine important information. It’s a thinking process, not a rote procedure. In a follow-up blog post, I’ll discuss more about how I help them make sense of problems.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!!