Common Core Math

In my Facebook feed I see a lot of pictures mocking common core math. The latest to go viral is the dad who used "common core math" to write a check.

Friendly Atheist over at Patheos wrote a blog post The Dad Who Wrote a Check Using “Common Core” Math Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About which describes what the deal is with "ten boxes" and how the check isn't even correct for using ten boxes.

I'm mildly qualified to give my own opinions on the whole common core math thingamabobber. I'm married to a science teacher which gives me access to someone in the business (though not in math). But don't take any of this to be her opinion; this is all me. More importantly, I've two kids, ages 10 and 13, who often need help with math homework. Imagine my surprise the first time I tried to help them and they told me I was "doing it all wrong". So I get the frustration a lot of parents feel.

Last year I attended a curriculum night for my younger daughter, then in 4th grade. Her math teacher talked about what's the intention behind common core math. The big thing is for kids to understand just what it is they are doing. Why when performing arithmetic do you borrow from the column to your left. What does it mean to "carry the 1". Kids are still taught the "old way" as well but the new standards allow kids to get the why and to also have tools to doing math quickly (more on that later as it might seem counter-intuitive). What I witnessed happening to me in the 80s and 90s is calculators made me dumb at simple math. I had to wean myself off of using them for everything. When you use a calculator you have no visibility at all what you're really doing. That's not to discount them as tools - when you're doing complicated equations they can be essential. But they can also blind you to the what's going on. This becomes even more important as you get to higher math - not something all kids will need but being prepared for the possibility is a good thing. For example, just what is a sine? A cosine? A derivative? What does it mean to integrate? These become essential in fields like engineering. For example, when you know the math you see that the formula for acceleration is just integrating the velocity.

"Fine. But most kids won't need that." And I agree, though most kids won't need chemistry either and I see the value in teaching that. But also consider doing math in your head. If I asked you to add 297 and 184 in your head could you? Probably. How would you do it? For me, I'd notice that 297 is just 3 away from  300 so I'm going to call it 300. Then I'll take those 3 away from the 184 to get 181. 481. Boom. Or to write it out..
297 + 184
297 + 184 + 3 - 3
(297 + 3) + (184 - 3)
300 + 181
Written out it looks a lot more complicated. That's because you are breaking it down into steps, steps that you're able to do intuitively. Common core math is all about teaching kids these steps. It's giving kids a toolkit and often with multiple ways of solving a problem.

Do I blame parents for the frustration? Not really. Like I said, it was frustrating for me to be told I was doing math wrong. I wound up googling to figure out the way the kids were being taught. But I have the advantage of being an engineer with a background in math. I think the best thing schools can do is make sure that parents are prepared for what they are going to be seeing from their kids - when using new teaching methods it is easy to dismiss the concerns of parents. I feel that the school isn't just teaching the kids they are also teaching the parents - at the very least you need to tell the parents why you are doing things the way you are - and in most cases, you can also assure them you will also be teaching them the "old way". I'd also suggest that in addition to teaching the why, schools should also make available the how. Prepare a pamphlet or handout for parents for each unit of math, explaining what is being taught, why it's being taught, and how help your kids with such problems. It certainly is more work for the schools but I feel it would go a long way towards buying parent buy-in. And saving my Facebook feed from angry parents puzzling over their kids' math homework.


Some follow-up thoughts a few hours after my initial post... A friend pointed out (as you can see in comments) common core does give more opportunity for something to go wrong. I actually agree with that diagnosis. I still think common core math is worth pursuing as the goal is to truly understand what you're doing with the math. That said, I've also seen it done incredibly wrong. Common core is not present "this is the way to do it", it is supposed to show "this is a way to do it". Having kids try different ways absolutely makes sense. But making them do it only one way is against the whole point. When "ten boxes" or other strategies are presented as the way, you are combining the worst of both worlds - a method which might not be initially intuitive along with a method that is rote.

Why do something that might not be initially intuitive? So that what we work our kids towards is mastery - understanding what it is they are doing, why they are doing it. Rote "carry the 1, borrow a 10, first-outside-inside-last" are methods to do something but do not necessarily impart knowledge.

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