Show Your Work

Show your work.

If I had a refrain, that might be it. Sure, there are others. Take care of your dishes. Check your list. Shower now if you can’t remember when you last washed. Take your feet off the wall. But over the course of seven-and-a-half years of homeschooling, this one line may be the one that I repeat the most often.

Of course I say it most often about math assignments. I sometimes wonder if I say it so much now because I didn’t say it at all to my older when he first came home in the middle of second grade. The gifted and talented school he attended didn’t offer him math lessons, since he’d already met their benchmarks for the state’s standardized testing. You read that correctly. The school dedicated to gifted and talented kids didn’t math accelerate. It’s part of the reason we came home. Math and science were his passions, and school offered little of either. But I digress.

Once at home, I came face-to-face with the severity of his dysgraphia. His writing disability made lining up numbers near impossible, and even with large-grid graph paper, his fingers tired long before he made it through even the shortest problems. So I scribed for him. Reducing the writing load for the dysgraphic child frees the child to think about the work rather than think about forming the letters and numbers. So for years, he sat next to me, telling me what to write for problem after problem.

Well, not always. Often, he could do them in his head. For many of the word problems, he juggled numbers and concepts while walking around the room, producing the correct answer while I scribbled my own process down on scrap paper. He was often faster than I, and he was usually correct. However, he could rarely tell me exactly what he was doing up there in his brain, but since it turned out reliable results most of the time, I didn’t press him. On the times I did ask, the answers as to process were so convoluted that I couldn’t have begun to put them onto paper.

I wish I’d tried. He started Algebra just before turning ten. The math was a breeze. The new requirement that he write down each step was not. I worked problem after problem on the white board, showing each step. On his first attempts to isolate the variable, he tried to do what I had done. While he could easily find the right answer, his steps were scrambled versions of mine, unrelated to his answer but rather inaccurate approximations of what I’d done in the examples. I was stumped.

Eventually, as the problems became longer, he saw some merit to showing his work. There just was too much to hold in his head once he was factoring polynomials and the like. Besides, he’d discovered the wonder of partial credit.  I started giving him tests, hoping to coax some respect for accuracy out of him.  That did improve, but an unanticipated side effect was that he showed more work. If he worked an equation correctly but made an arithmetic mistake along the way, he could still gather most of the points for the problem, process being top priority. Show your work equaled a higher score, even with an addition error here and there. It wasn’t my intention that these be linked, but the result was desirable — he started to show his work more consistently.

Fast forward to Chemistry. Teaching two boys entering their teens (one wasn’t mine), school work often seemed to be an impediment to their good time. I started the year singing my “show your work” sweetly and gently. By November, it was more gruffly growled than sang, and I started deducting points on tests for non conformers. In general, that improved how much work was shown, but they were hardly showing it all the time. I developed a litany of reasons to show work. Here’s today’s version:

  • When you show your work, you can more easily check your own work for mistakes. (Yes, this implies that one would naturally want to assure and answer was correct. No, this has not yet gained a convert to work-showing.)
  • Writing down each step of your work helps you work more efficiently. It’s hard work to hold a bunch of numbers and variables in your head.
  • Writing down work means you may get some points for a wrong answer. (AKA, the Partial Credit Plea).
  • Showing your work tells me that YOU did the work, not the answer guide at the back of the book. (Yes, playing the “you could be cheating card” is rough, but that’s actually one of the more compelling reasons to show it for my older.)
  • If you intend to be a scientist or mathematician, you must show your work so others can try to replicate your findings and verify that you did not pull the data out of your nose (or other body part). (Since my children aren’t inclined in these directions, this receives either polite nods or blank stares.)
  • I’ll send you back to do it again (and again) if you don’t show the work, or I’ll simply mark it entirely wrong on a test. (Tough love or just practical? I don’t care. This one works moderately well, at least until said student just wants to be done and forgets this extra-work producing rule).
  • Show it because that’s what you’d have to do in school. (Yes, this one seems lame. However, my older returns to the classroom for Calculus in the fall, so the skill needs to be in place).

I’d love to report that I don’t need to sing or scream that refrain anymore. My older’s heard it so many times that I’m surprised he doesn’t mutter it in his sleep. Yet just this week, he was sent back not once but twice on the same assignment with my chorus ringing across the house. My younger ran into the same chorus an hour after the older’s first offense. He repeated the assignment, this time extolling the virtue of showing work and promising to sin no more.  I’m cautiously optimistic.  Until I know he really is a true work-shower, I’ll continue to remind him before problem sets and likely need to repeat the refrain when we move into physical science in the fall. For now, I’ll sing, shout, plead, or whisper in increasingly menacing tones: Show your work!

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