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Losing the answer key

We all want to help. We want our students to succeed in their work in our classrooms. We want them to feel protected. We want them to recognize their limitless potential. But sometimes, our desire to help is challenged by the realities of the modern classroom: time constraints, aggressive pacing guides, ever-changing curricula, and other factors compete for our attention. In some situations, we feel like we have to be the Answer Key, and we may provide too much support, and even give answers, to comfort struggling students.

But when we rush in with an answer, what message are we sending to our students?


When we give an answer, we send the message that we don't want challenges or struggle. The flow of ideas is halted, and student attempts at understanding are marginalized. "Why try to understand the problem when I'm just going to be given the answer?"

Watch this 1 minute video of Jo Boaler talking about the 'Didactic Contract,' a common teacher/student interaction that removes the cognitive demand from a problem and empties it of learning:

As teachers we need to support productive struggle. We need to allow students the time and safe space to make sense of mathematical ideas. Students need to make mistakes, grapple with ideas in different ways, and collaborate in order to challenge and analyze their understanding of mathematics.

What if you tried this?

For one class, refrain from jumping in and giving answers. Rather than being the Answer Key, become a moderator, asking students to make the final judgments on answers. Questions like these can help the process:

  • "How do you know?"

  • "How do we justify this solution?"

  • "What strategy did you use when you answered this problem?"

  • "Can you represent your solution with a model?"

There will be some uncomfortable silence at first. Let your students grapple with ideas and mistakes, and just listen to the conversation. Yes, students will see fewer math problems during class. But they will get an opportunity to express their understanding, and you will be reinforcing the message that your classroom is a place where students are in charge of their learning.

Change Isn't Easy

New behaviors take time. Be patient with yourself and your students. Although things may not go as smoothly the first time, you may come to like what you see and hear from your students as you empower them. Remember, "invention and discovery emanate from the ability to try seemingly wild possibilities; to feel comfortable being wrong before being right..."

Check out what Peter Sims has to say about not knowing answers in 'Daring to Stumble on the Road to Discovery.'

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