We all get asked it every day…especially when mentoring in math

“Is this right?”

You CANNOT Give In And Tell Them Yes Or No!

Doing so builds a behavior of dependency on you and your input to be able to make decisions – quite the opposite of a self-reliant thinker…

Traditional mathematics places all of the emphasis on getting the right answer. Think about it. The SAT, the ACT, all high stakes testing is multiple choice and all that matters is the answer. The AP Statistics and Calculus exams do a little better to reward process and thinking but they too heavily reward right answers alone.

In fact, one of the greatest causes of anxiety with math is that because there usually exists a right answer, most of us feel like it should be arrived at quickly and directly. If not, then we are failures.

Is The Right Answer Not Important?

The “right answer” focus drives current math education. You can see it in the math that is taught, in the assignments that are given, in curriculum designs, and in testing. I’m not proclaiming the answer to be insignificant, of course we need right answers. Albert Einstein summed up our position beautifully by saying

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

It has been our experience in every case that as the focus is placed on the student’s thinking, correct answers are an inevitable byproduct.

So What Do I Say When I’m Asked If It’s Right?

The best way to help your students feel confident in their own discovery of math is to answer their “is this right?” question with a good “What do you think?”  question.  Kids can know for themselves if their answers are right or wrong.  They can prove their answers using manipulatives, drawings and logic.  Give them that chance.  Allow them to take ownership of their own learning.

The 9 Questions To Ask Your Student To Focus On Their Thinking (instead of saying yes that’s right or no that’s not right)

  1. Why did you do it that way?
  2. What does this mean?
  3. How do you know?
  4. Can you prove it?
  5. Why does that work?
  6. How does this relate to what we already know or what we have done before?
  7. What happened last time?
  8. What if we changed something or tried something different?
  9. I’m not so sure about that, can you explain that differently?

Focusing On Student Thinking Will:

  • Allow students to feel success through the entire solving process and not just at the end.
  • Elicit deeper understanding and not just be satisfied with memorizing the solution steps.
  • Help students learn to articulate and defend their reasoning.
  • Build confidence in intelligent thought and not on right answers.
  • Validate the student’s uniqueness and brilliance in their approach to the problem rather than the same right answer that everybody else found.


Hope this helps you and your kids this week!

Remember that it takes time to change how you interact with your kids and how comfortable they get with answering these questions and not focusing on the answer.  Just keep trying, moving forward and I promise you’ll see a huge change in yourself and in your children’s ability to think.

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