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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

Let's stop testing students on HOW they solve problems.

It's about IF they get it right. Not HOW. Students are not information regurgitators. The stakes of forcing them to arbitrarily implement certain methods are high. Not only is it demoralizing, but also it can systematically steer them away from their innate and budding sense of creativity.

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Math is challenging enough. If students solve problems in methods that speak to them, let's celebrate that. Not everyone agrees with this, though.

I’m sincerely baffled why I need to ask that math teachers not require certain methods. I’ve gone over it time and again in my mind, only to arrive at the same conclusion. Requiring students to solve problems in specific ways is counterproductive at best, and demoralizing at worst.

Ask a random sample of teachers who force methods on their students and here’s what they’ll say:

  • “You’ll need this method for when the problems become more complicated.” My response: then teach the method when it’s actually necessary.

  • “This is how it’s done in the book.” My response: so? If the kid gets the answer right every time, isn’t that awesome? Honestly ask what’s more important: adherence to a book, or your student’s learning experience?

  • “The student’s method won’t always work.” My response: that’s certainly possible, so explain to them why. Then devise your assessments such that various methods, including the ones you wish students to learn, are encouraged. This can be done creatively. For example, if a student refuses to obtain the x-intercept algebraically, and instead insists that “graphing is more my thing” to obtain the answer, then craft a problem that would make using algebra straightforward, while graphing would be tedious and possibly inexact.

  • “They should know different ways of solving.” My response: then come up with problems that inherently require various methods.

I once worked with a student from another school, and I introduced a solving method that made her downright relieved. Her relief stemmed from how she was utterly baffled at the method presented in class. When she implemented this simpler method on her test, I learned that the teacher begrudgingly gave her the points, because the test didn’t specify which method to use. But the following year, when the same unit came about, and I offered this alternative method to another relieved student, the updated test snarled the following, word for word:

“Determine whether the following functions are inverses ONLY USING THE METHODS DONE IN CLASS.

The student showed me these instructions and its use of capitalized, underlined, and bolded letters. We were so disheartened. What ego. This reeks of power trip, which is so outdated in our modernized society that encourages and rewards creativity. Think about the last time someone at work conjured a creative and unique problem-solving plan. This person was undoubtedly lauded. And of course, outside of any legitimate critique of this unique method, the only people that poo-poo the plan are just being haters. It’s all the same energy: ego.

Despite my frustration at the current state-of-affairs regarding mandated methods, I have a solution that potentially can help everyone. If you’re a teacher who strongly advocates for specific methods, kindly try the following wording on your tests:

“Solve the following problems using any method of your choice. Extra credit will be given for using more than one method."

Just the words “extra credit” are enough to make your entire class rise up and break out into a tightly choreographed flash mob, back-lit for additional dramatic effect. It doesn’t matter how much extra credit it is. It can be a ceremonial boost, such as +2 points on a 100 point test. This way, the classroom vibe flips from forceful to invitational. From rigid to dynamic.

So next time your students quip anything akin to, “couldn’t we just have…” or “wouldn’t it be easier if we…” or “it really helps me if I…”, then just say yes. Yes, to thinking independently. Yes, to self-advocating and to owning their learning experience. Yes, to feeling safe enough to experiment. For these aspirational values that we wish to imbue, just say YES.

Warmly yours,



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