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.
- he loves to tell stories, but doesn’t write enough down in class.
- she can explain the idea out loud, but refuses to write the steps out on paper.
The easy answer is that the student’s being defiant, difficult, or lazy. You might even hear someone say “if you’re so smart, how come you can’t do this?”
The Real Problem
The real problem is that this student doesn’t know how to explain her thinking. Why? Because no one ever taught her this skill!
Many gifted kids breezed through the first few years of school without needing to explain their thinking. They “just knew it.” The need to justify thinking only appears once the work becomes complex enough to need justification. Bright kids still “just know it,” but suddenly there’s a new hoop to jump through.
Now, it’s not that unreasonable for someone to be good at something, yet not know how to explain it. You and I complete tasks every day that we’d struggle to explain. 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 office
- write out the steps to throw a baseball
These are things I can do well, but I do them intuitively. And that intuition hides the details.
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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?”
Work Through It With Them
It’s a weird trap: because a child is “so smart”, everyone thinks any gaps in their skills are a result of laziness or defiance.
But as a “smart kid” goes through school, more and more gaps appear. They simply can’t already know everything like they did in kindergarten. And the earliest gaps are often related to explaining processes which are simply intuitive. Communicating our automatic thoughts is a very tricky skill to learn.
Like my aunt, many talented students 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. Remember that sometimes the brightest kid needs small group instruction for a skill the rest of the class already gets.
Photo by Centermez