Show Your Work

I’m sitting at the dining room table with my son, answering work emails and working on a power point, while he does the 3rd grade equivalent: Math homework. Right now they’re making change (e.g.,” Jose walks into a store with $5 and buys a yo-yo for $2.58, how much change should he get? What’s the fewest coins he could receive?”) (My personal take is Jose shouldn’t be ripped off $2.58 for a yo-yo, that he could probably get a tall latte for that, but that’s another matter).

The problem we are currently facing is the predisposition to guess and/or intuit the answer. Whilst this works about 75% of the time — well, more like 83% of the time — the remaining 25-or-17% of the time it doesn’t. And he marks a wrong answer, and it gets caught in the check (read, Mom review).

Then begins the inexplicable cascade of numbers, Rainman-style, that come from my son: “42! 13! 79! No mom it’s really 12!”. And then I utter the dreaded phrase: “Show your work.”

My brother and I were raised by engineers — Gandalf help us — and thusly hated this phrase ourselves. We *knew* the answers, to sully the page with scribblings that were really academic — literally — to the proceedings seemed poorly required. Oftentimes we’d get grades come back with a B — A for accuracy, but alas we hadn’t shown our work. A deep and abiding distaste for the phrase “Show your work” started. To us, the ANSWER was the beautiful thing. Why show the bones of your effort?

As I progressed up the math chain — I can’t speak for my brother, as I wasn’t around much in his advanced schooling and he would have found me unbearable had I been — I discovered the grade value of “Show your work”. In calculus, and especially differential equations, showing your work can show how you were totally on the right track until step 34, when you saw a deer. Or something. All of a sudden your “C” becomes a “B” and when your GPA is riding on it, this becomes a Big Thing.

When you’re in grad school and you’re funding your GPA it becomes a Really Big Thing. The only class where “Show your work” was a detractant was the Legal Environment of Business, in which I kept confusing what was Right with what was Legal, and I got ding’d for “irrelevant ancillary notes” (true story). On the flip side, I’ve noted that the mark of a really, truly excellent lawyer is one who has the “Brief”, briefly, but with a million annotated facts and appendices, clearly marked, at the ready.

I sit here with my son, nagging him to show his work. He will totally thank me some day when he’s a lawyer.


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