Sometimes They Explain It Better Than You

As much as my ego doesn’t like to admit it, often times my student’s explanations of math concepts and processes is WAY more effective than mine.  In the past I would actually make myself a little crazy as I tried to think up 15 different ways to say the same thing to teach a tough concept. Then, one tiny little 8 year old would trot up to the board, say it perfectly, and the light bulbs would go on.

During a response day, when I noticed that students were struggling a bit with perimeter, I made tiered/leveled posters around the room of perimeter tasks.  Leveled posters allow for differentiation, and they are also formative so that you can see who is meeting your learning target vs. who is not.

For example, this learning target was: I can calculate perimeter when a side is missing.

  • Level 2 (basic): all the measurements were labeled on all of the sides of the figure.
  • Level 3 (proficient): one side of the figure had a missing measurement.
  • Level 4 (advanced): more than one side was missing their measurements.
Perimeter Task

Level 3 Poster: The students had to add the two sides that were known, to find the unknown side. (The two in the corner signifies that this is the second problem as they numbered their papers.)

Their goal was to try to get through them all. The problems were numbered, so they simply numbered their half sheet of paper and tried each one.  I tell them ahead of time what it means when they successfully answer each problem.  They knew the levels and consequently tried hard to get all three. (No one got the Level 4 problem, very close, but not quite!)

Perimeter Task

Level 4 Poster: This one perplexed even my accelerated gifted and talented student. He missed the insides of the figure.

My favorite part is the math talk session where they discuss their answers with each other. We move from poster to poster, and students speak up and share their thinking. I don’t have to say a word.  You hear a lot of shouts of understanding and mistake finding as they explain.  Again, it is okay for me to take a backseat. I don’t have to blabber my mouth (for double the time) when very quickly they speak to each other.  When everyone is stuck, that is when I step in.

When students do the talking, they do the learning!




  1. We do this quite often. When they answer I always want them to explain how they got their answer. Sometimes that can lead to questions from others which leads to better understanding. There are times when I’ve explained it several times and a friend can explain it to them better then me. That is evidence that they have learned!



  2. The document camera is the best aid I have to doing this. Having students find a new method to solve a problem, and then being able to show the entire class their written work — instantly, and without advance planning — is an incredibly effective way to follow through on this ideal.



  3. I had teachers who let me (or other students) explain math concepts to the class. I think that is one of the reasons I grew to love math.



  4. I just found your blog today and I love your ideas! I am filling up my Pinterest account so I can remember to add these to my lessons. I am the chairman of the third grade teachers in our small rural district. We have 7 third grade teachers in our district, with most of us the only one in our school so our planning is very individual. However, I will be insisting all teachers read your blog prior to our first meeting in a few weeks. I will be following you!



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