When speaking with parents, I consistently hear concerns like this:
My child was the top math student in the class until 3rd grade, and now, because she doesn’t write her work out, she’s failing! The teacher says she knows the math but just doesn’t explain herself.
The problem is not that students struggle to explain their thinking. It’s that no one ever taught them how to explain their thinking.
But let’s take a step back and note that it’s not unreasonable for someone to be good at something yet not know how to explain it. Being good at something and being able to explain it are two completely different skills. And it’s rarely necessary to explain things you’re good at. You and I successfully complete tasks every day that we’d struggle to explain clearly. I could not, off the top of my head:
- explain the steps to tie my shoes
- give precise directions to get from home to my son’s preschool (even though I make the drive several times a day!)
- write out the steps to throw a baseball
- finger a C chord (without actually holding my guitar)
These are things I can do very well, but I do them intuitively. And that intuition hides the details.
Every Thanksgiving, my aunt bakes incredible pies. My wife and I asked how she makes these desserts. She couldn’t explain it. No recipe. No measurements. She bakes “by feel.” She works using her instincts.
So we went through the process with her one day. At every step, she told us what she was doing. Sometimes her explanation was unclear, and we stopped her to ask for clarification. It took a long time. But in the end, we had a set of directions that we could follow at home.
Of course, her pies are delicious whether or not she can explain the steps. No one says, “If you’re such a good baker, why can’t you explain it?” There is no reason for her to be able to explain how to make pies, other than to pass them on to the next generation.
So, first, consider if it’s even necessary to be able to explain something. Outside of teaching, this skill isn’t always that important. I don’t care if the chef at my favorite restaurant can explain how she cooks. I don’t care if Steph Curry can explain how he shoots three-pointers so well. I don’t care if Paul McCartney can explain how to write a catchy song. I just want them to do it so I can enjoy the product!
Work Through It With Them
Now, when it is important to explain ones thinking, then let’s make sure to teach it properly like we would any other skill. Write a lesson with the usual steps of modeling, guided practice, independent practice, etc.
It’s a weird trap: because a child is “so smart,” everyone thinks any gaps in their skills result from laziness or defiance.
But as a “smart kid” goes through school, more and more gaps appear. They simply can’t already know everything as they did in kindergarten. And the earliest gaps are often related to explaining processes that are, to them, simply intuitive. Communicating our automatic thoughts is a very tricky skill to learn.
Like my aunt, your students may need someone to sit with them and literally go step by step, asking (nicely):
- “Wait, what did you do there?”
- “Hold on. Why did you do that?”
- “What do you mean by…?”
If you’re dealing with a student who is failing tests because they don’t show work (but do know the answers), realize that showing work is a separate skill that needs its own instruction and practice. Sometimes the brightest kid needs small group instruction for a skill the rest of the class already gets.
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