It was a command that I’m sure most of us heard when we were growing up. Educators teaching math love to say it as they assign homework or pass out quizzes and exams. I heard them say, “Show your work!” so many times that I imagined math teachers would shout their mantra from the rooftops. They would fling open their shutters to yell at passersby like the people in those old commercials claiming it was their money and they wanted it now!

But I never really liked this direction given by my various teachers over the years. Now, I was no math genius by any stretch of the imagination, but I was pretty good at grasping concepts. Once I fully understood how to do something, I liked to figure it out in my head. But this was forbidden.

The part that I always felt to be unfair was when the teacher would let us know that, if we did not show our work on the math problems, they would be counted as wrong. This would happen even if the problem had the correct solution. Why does it matter how I found the answer if I got it right? If you don’t suspect a student of cheating, why should you mark the right answer as wrong?

I understand that teachers want to know their students’ thought processes as they solve problems. But, while math has fixed solutions and rules in regards to its operations, there isn’t always one way to find those solutions. This is made clear by the differences in the way schools teach math from generation to generation. I distinctly recall my own parents helping me with math homework and stating that they learned a different way of doing things when they were little. Working in an elementary school, I see firsthand that they are teaching math differently than when I was a kid. I’m aware that a lot of parents don’t care enough to help their children with homework. But those that do have a hard time because they failed to keep up with the changing face of education in the years since they left grade school. They know their kids’ teachers will have certain expectations of their kids’ homework assignments, but they’re expectations that those parents are ill-equipped to meet. They learned how to do that problem differently 20 years ago.

Should children be forced to do the extra work if their brains are wired in such a way that they can find the solution to a math problem without getting a cramp in their hand? Should they be punished because something comes easily to them or they have a natural ability when it comes to numbers? It’s one thing if the kid is struggling with the concepts and have gotten the solutions wrong time and again. Enforcing the “show your work” rule on a struggler is not such a bad thing. They won’t like it, but the hope is that they’ll eventually come to understand how to solve the problem correctly. I suppose the flip side of that coin is that it would be unfair to make some kids show their work because they need to actually work through the problems on paper to find the correct solutions while saying that others don’t have to just because they’re able to get it right in their heads.

So what’s the solution to this particular math problem? Show your work in the comments below.

*BTW… *Calvin & Hobbes* belongs to the incomparable Bill Watterson, whose genius has been missed in the newspaper comics for nearly 20 years.

My kid needs to learn to show his work because, while he is smart (please don’t think that I’m bragging, I’m just being truthful), he also has a tendency to rush through the problems so quickly in his head that he makes simple mistakes. I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out “where” he got the problem wrong when I’ve checked his homework. He also needs to work on his handwriting, and showing his math work helps him more fully develop the muscles of his hand. There is also the effect of creating the habit. It may not be a big deal now, but elementary school is a great time developmentally for kids to learn good habits. I view it as being easier on him when he gets into harder math, chemistry, and physics. (These harder things may not be far behind- he’s been using equations to solve for “x” since late 1st grade.) But of course, I may be biased- one of my good friends teaches college engineering courses, so I’ve heard quite a bit from her perspective.

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