As much as it pains me to say, after years of denial, I must admit my freshman-year algebra teacher was right.
On the scale of high school priorities, algebra fell somewhere between waking up early and listening to a parental lecture. Something that needed to get done but usually as a last resort after all alternatives were fully and completely exhausted.
It’s not that I was bad at math. I usually found the right answer to a tricky word problem or algebraic puzzle. It just took me twice as long to get there and followed a complicated path that made sense only to me.
So I dreaded that inevitable moment when, piece of chalk in hand, the teacher said, “Show your work.” Many of you are familiar with the request. Showing your work is a staple of math teaching.
It’s a crucial part of the scientific method, too. When they submit findings to a scholarly journal, researchers provide their conclusion as well as their methodology — how they arrived at that result so others can repeat their study and confirm the results. I think we can all agree that we’d like our doctors to prescribe a treatment that’s more than just a hunch.
As it turns out, showing your work is more than sound science. It’s solid life advice. Seeing not just how others did their work but also how they struggled along the way is a powerful learning method.
According to a recent study by researchers at Columbia University, high school students who learn about the personal struggles of great scientists such as Albert Einstein outperform their peers who learn only about his achievements.
Learning what great scientists like Einstein and Marie Curie had to overcome helped students relate to them as real people. Learning about Einstein’s escape from Nazi Germany or about other scientists’ long labors and failures pushed them to see their achievements as the culmination of consistent effort. Knowing more about Einstein the man helps students better understand Einstein the scientist.
On the flip side, students who only learned about scientists’ achievements were less motivated and earned lower grades. If they were interested at all, they saw Einstein’s achievements as the product of a freakish intellect. E=MC-bored.
Educational theorists call this process of learning about learning meta-learning. And it is the key to learning that truly lasts. Meta-learning makes explicit something many of us already know: Education is more than the acquisition of knowledge, development of skills and formation of habits.
I need to know algebra and I also need to be able to apply it to real situations and persist despite the difficulty I might have in learning it. Perhaps most importantly, I need to be able to reflect on how I learn and adapt it to new situations.
That process of reflection and thinking about how I think contextualizes learning and makes it real and lasting. It’s why our most powerful learning experiences seem to happen in Technicolor. We vividly remember where we were, who we were with and what we were doing at the moment we learned something profound or moving.
These are not grayed out experiences with a vague context. They are powerful and memorable. We might have learned some new fact or skill. More importantly, we learned something about ourselves and others.
Showing your work is fundamental not just to math and science. It’s essential to leadership and career development. Helping others learn how they learn and making that transparent to others is what makes learning last and drives higher engagement.
While this kind of powerful learning can happen in many ways, it gets a powerful boost from face-to-face experience. It’s what makes events like this month’s Chief Learning Officer Spring Symposium, taking place at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island in Florida from April 6-8 such a moving experience.
It’s one of the few places CLOs can get together to share their experiences and learn from one another. It packs a punch as a learning experience exactly because those three days are filled with stories from learning leaders at companies big and small, global and local.
And unlike my high school math class, showing your work becomes a genuine pleasure.