Since the beginning of my teaching career, there are a handful in every class: those students who, despite numerous pleas to "show work," refuse to write anything but the answer on the page. I give what I think is a thoughtful (and lengthy) practice set as homework, only to find that student who has successfully reduced it to a smattering of digits that fills up only a quarter of a notebook page!
"You need to show your work," I'll say.At this point, blank stares or shrugs are about all I ever get, but depending upon my mood, I might launch into one of the following attacks:
"I did it in my head," he replies.
"You did what in your head?" I'm not letting him off, I don't care if he's a genius or not. "You need to write down what you did."
- "You need to know what you've done, so you can correct yourself if mistakes are made." (You're not as clever as you think.)
- "A good mathematician must show diligence in precision, and exercise good habits of mind." (You'll never amount to anything.)
- "It may seem easy now, but it won't always be and showing steps now will make the steps more natural in the future." (Pleeeease... I need to validate my existence.)
- "You only get partial (or no) credit. You need to show your work to get full credit." (You will do it because I SAID so!)
So then comes the blow: the thing I've been forcing myself into these past months. I ask myself "WHY?" And I don't mean "Why do these kinds of students frustrate me?" I know the answer to that question. The real question is "Why is it important to show your work?"
That particular question has evaded me many times, probably because of a lingering fear that the answer might be "It isn't." Thankfully, I don't think I'll need to go there.
At the heart of the issue is the realization that there is a quintessential difference between an answer and a solution to a problem. A solution illustrates, generalizes, communicates, and verifies the results. An answer is just a number. In mathematics it is important to find the correct answer, sure, but more importantly I want my students to gain skills in writing accurate and convincing solutions. It's not enough to just know the answer, you need to be able to prove it beyond a doubt to yourself and others. Take this example:
The result of treating 'work' as 'proof' could very well be an improvement in reasoning and logic in students across the board. Certainly it would make a difference to my geometry students when they are first confronted with conditional statements, laws of reasoning, and proofs. It seems that more and more, students (and people in general) are forgiven for their inability to write a logical and convincing argument.
So, is my colleague right? ARE we moving away from proof? Are YOU? Seriously, I want to know.