At a middle school in California, the state testing in math was underway via the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam. A girl pointed to the problem on the computer screen and asked “What do I do?” The proctor read the instructions for the problem and told the student: “You need to explain how you got your answer.”

The girl threw her arms up in frustration and said, “Why can’t I just do the problem, enter the answer and be done with it?”

The answer to her question comes down to what the education establishment believes “understanding” to be, and how to measure it. K-12 mathematics instruction involves equal parts procedural skills and understanding. What “understanding” in mathematics means, however, has long been a topic of debate. One distinction popular with today’s math-reform advocates is between “knowing” and “doing.” A student, reformers argue, might be able to “do” a problem (i.e., solve it mathematically) without understanding the concepts behind the problem-solving procedure. Perhaps he or she has simply memorized the method without understanding it and is performing the steps by “rote.”

The Common Core math standards, adopted in 42 states and the District of Columbia and reflected in Common Core-aligned tests like the SBAC and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), take understanding to a whole new level. “Students who lack understanding of a topic may rely on procedures too heavily,” states the Common Core website. “But what does mathematical understanding look like?” And how can teachers assess it?

One way is to ask the student to justify, in a way that is appropriate to the student’s mathematical maturity, why a particular mathematical statement is true, or where a mathematical rule comes from.

The underlying assumption here is that if a student understands something, he or she can explain it—and that deficient explanation signals deficient understanding. But this raises yet another question: What constitutes a satisfactory explanation?

While the Common Core leaves this unspecified, current practices are suggestive. Consider a problem that asks how many total pencils there are if five people have three pencils each. In the eyes of some educators, explaining why the answer is 15 by stating, simply, that 5 x 3 = 15 is not satisfactory. To show they truly understand why 5 x 3 is 15, and why this computation provides the answer to the given word problem, students must do more. For example, they might draw a picture illustrating five groups of three pencils. (And in some instances, as was the case recently in a third-grade classroom, a student would be considered to not understand if he or she drew three groups of five pencils.)

Consider now a problem given in a pre-algebra course that involves percentages: “A coat has been reduced by 20 percent to sell for $160. What was the original price of the coat?”

A student may show the solution as follows:

x = original cost of coat in dollars
100% – 20% = 80%
0.8x = $160
x = $200

Clearly, the student knows the mathematical procedure necessary to solve the problem. In fact, for years students were told not to explain their answers, but to show their work, and if presented in a clear and organized manner, the math contained in this work was considered to be its own explanation. But the above demonstration might, through the prism of the Common Core standards, be considered an inadequate explanation. That is, inspired by what the standards say about understanding, one could ask “Does the student know why the subtraction operation is done to obtain the 80 percent used in the equation or is he doing it as a mechanical procedure—i.e., without understanding?”

In a middle school observed by one of us, the school’s goal was to increase student proficiency in solving math problems by requiring students to explain how they solved them. This was not required for all problems given; rather, they were expected to do this for two or three problems in class per week, which took up to 10 percent of total weekly class time. They were instructed on how to write explanations for their math solutions using a model called “Need, Know, Do.” In the problem example given above, the “Need” would be “What was the original price of the coat?”  The “Know” would be the information provided in the problem statement, here the price of the discounted coat and the discount rate. The “Do” is the process of solving the problem.

Students were instructed to use “flow maps” and diagrams to describe the thinking and steps used to solve the problem, after which they were to write a narrative summary of what was described in the flow maps and elsewhere. They were told that the “Do” (as well as the flow maps) explains what they did to solve the problem and that the narrative summary provides the why. Many students, though, had difficulty differentiating the “Do” section from the final narrative. But in order for their explanation to qualify as “high level,” they couldn’t simply state “100% – 20% = 80%”; they had to explain what that means. For example, they might say, “The discount rate subtracted from 100 percent gives the amount that I pay.”

An example of a student’s written explanation for this problem is shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Example of student explanation.

For problems at this level, the amount of work required for explanation turns a straightforward problem into a long managerial task that is concerned more with pedagogy than with content. While drawing diagrams or pictures may help some students learn how to solve problems, for others it is unnecessary and tedious. As the above example shows, the explanations may not offer the “why” of a particular procedure.

Under the rubric used at the middle school where this problem was given, explanations are ranked as “high,” “middle,” or “low.” This particular explanation would probably fall in the “middle” category since it is unlikely that the statement “You need to subtract 100- 20 to get 80” would be deemed a “purposeful, mathematically-grounded written explanation.”

The “Need” and “Know” steps in the above process are not new and were advocated by George Polya in the 1950s in his classic book How to Solve It. The “Need” and “Know” aspect of the explanatory technique at the middle school observed is a sensible one. But Polya’s book was about solving problems, not explaining or justifying how they were done. At the middle school, problem solving and explanation were intertwined, in the belief that the process of explanation leads to the solving of the problem. This conflation of problem solving and explanation arises from a complex history of educational theories. One theory holds that being aware of one’s thinking process—called  “metacognition”—is part and parcel to problem solving. Other theories that feed the conflation predate the Common Core standards and originated during the Progressive era in the early part of the 20th Century when “conceptual understanding” began to be viewed as a path to, and thus more important than, procedural fluency.

Despite the goal of solving a problem and explaining it in one fell swoop, in many cases observed at the middle school, students solved the problem first and then added the explanation in the required format and rubric.  It was not evident that the process of explanation enhanced problem solving ability. In fact, in talking with students at the school, many found the process tedious and said they would rather just “do the math” without having to write about it.

In general, there is no more evidence of “understanding” in the explained solution, even with pictures, than there would be in mathematical solutions presented in a clear and organized way. How do we know, for example, that a student isn’t simply repeating an explanation provided by the teacher or the textbook, thus exhibiting mere “rote learning” rather than “true understanding” of a problem-solving procedure?

Math learning is a progression from concrete to abstract. The advantage to the abstract is that the various mathematical operations can be performed without the cumbersome attachments of concrete entities—entities like dollars, percentages, groupings of pencils. Once a particular word problem has been translated into a mathematical representation, the entirety of its mathematically relevant content is condensed onto abstract symbols, freeing working memory and unleashing the power of pure mathematics. That is, information and procedures that have been become automatic  frees up working memory. With working memory less burdened, the student can focus on solving the problem at hand. Thus, requiring explanations beyond the mathematics itself distracts and diverts students away from the convenience and power of abstraction. Mandatory demonstrations of “mathematical understanding,” in other words, can impede the “doing” of actual mathematics.

Advocates for math reform are reluctant to accept that delays in understanding are normal and do not signal a failure of the teaching method. Students learn to do, they learn to apply what they’ve mastered, they learn to do more, they begin to see why and eventually the light comes on. Furthermore, math reformers often fail to understand that conceptual understanding works in tandem with procedural fluency. Doing a procedure devoid of any understanding of what is being done is actually hard to accomplish with elementary math because the very learning of procedures is, itself, informative of meaning, and the repetitious use of them conveys understanding to the user.

Explaining the solution to a problem comes when students can draw on a strong foundation of content relevant to the topic currently being learned. As students find their feet and establish a larger repertoire of mastered knowledge and methods, the more articulate they can become in explanations. Children in elementary and middle school who are asked to engage in critical thinking about abstract ideas will, more often than not, respond emotionally and intuitively, not logically and with “understanding.” It is as if the purveyors of these practices are saying: “If we can just get them to do things that look like what we imagine a mathematician does, then they will be real mathematicians.”  That may be behaviorally interesting, but it is not mathematical development and it leaves them behind in the development of their fundamental skills.

The idea that students who do not demonstrate their strategies in words and pictures or by multiple methods don’t understand the underlying concepts is particularly problematic for certain vulnerable types of students. Consider students whose verbal skills lag far behind their mathematical skills—non-native English speakers or students with specific language delays or language disorders, for example. These groups include children who can easily do math in their heads and solve complex problems, but often will be unable to explain—whether orally or in written words—how they arrived at their answers.

Most exemplary are children on the autism spectrum. As the autism researcher Tony Attwood has observed, mathematics has special appeal to individuals with autism: It is, often, the school subject that best matches their cognitive strengths. Indeed, writing about Asperger’s Syndrome (a high-functioning subtype of autism), Attwood in his 2007 book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome notes that “the personalities of some of the great mathematicians include many of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome.”

And yet, Attwood added, many children on the autism spectrum, even those who are mathematically gifted, struggle when asked to explain their answers. “The child can provide the correct answer to a mathematical problem,” he observes, “but not easily translate into speech the mental processes used to solve the problem.” Back in 1944, Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who first studied the condition that now bears his name, famously cited one of his patients as saying that, “I can’t do this orally, only headily.”

Writing from Australia decades later, a few years before the Common Core took hold in America, Attwood added that it can “mystify teachers and lead to problems with tests when the person with Asperger’s syndrome is unable to explain his or her methods on the test or exam paper.” Here in Common Core America, this inability has morphed into an unprecedented liability.

Is it really the case that the non-linguistically inclined student who progresses through math with correct but unexplained answers—from multi-digit arithmetic through to multi-variable calculus—doesn’t understand the underlying math? Or that the mathematician with the Asperger’s personality, doing things headily but not orally, is advancing the frontiers of his field in a zombie-like stupor?

Or is it possible that the ability to explain one’s answers verbally, while sometimes a sufficient criterion for proving understanding, is not, in fact, a necessary one? And, to the extent that it isn’t a necessary criterion, should verbal explanation be the way to gauge comprehension?

Measuring understanding, or learning in general, isn’t easy. What testing does is measure “markers” or byproducts of learning and understanding. Explaining answers is but one possible marker.

Another, quite simply, are the answers themselves. If a student can consistently solve a variety of problems, that student likely has some level of mathematical understanding. Teachers can assess this more deeply by looking at the solutions and any work shown and asking some spontaneous follow-up questions tailored to the child’s verbal abilities. But it’s far from clear whether a general requirement to accompany all solutions with verbal explanations provides a more accurate measurement of mathematical understanding than the answers themselves and any work the student has produced along the way.  At best, verbal explanations beyond “showing the work” may be superfluous; at worst, they shortchange certain students and encumber the mathematics for everyone.

As Alfred North Whitehead famously put it about a century before the Common Core standards took hold:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism … that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.