Curriculum Opinion

Common-Core Math: What Are We So Afraid Of?

By Dave Powell — March 07, 2016 5 min read
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Someday, maybe many years from now, someone will go back and read all the ridiculous articles and watch all the hilarious videos that were made complaining about how dumb Common Core made them feel. I say someone should start cataloguing them now.

Can you imagine if we had had this technology in earlier eras of school reform? Here’s a local farmer complaining about Horace Mann’s common school filling up his son’s head with mindless republicanism, aided and abetted by America’s first hegemonic textbook mogul, Noah Webster. Over here is an expose of the “real education” happening at Dewey’s “communistic” Lab School. Are they cooking? How’s that going to close the achievement gap?

Well, we have a new entry into the genre today. Take a look:

Scary Common Core math lesson - this is what they're teaching ... This is a frightening 2 minute "Common Core" math lesson ... This is what they teach our kids in school! Posted by The People's Voice on Tuesday, March 1, 2016

This one came to us from an organization called “The People’s Voice,” which describes itself as “a global news organization dedicated to reporting the information, background and opinions the mainstream media won’t touch.” I guess there’s a reason the mainstream media won’t touch this opinion: because it’s just not very smart.

To be fair, there doesn’t appear to be anything incorrect about the content presented in this video; I don’t doubt that this person did, in fact, just return from a tutoring session in which she was taught to solve this math problem in exactly this way. I’ll try not to belabor the point about the actual math involved here, but let me just say that this is a classic example—and there are so, so many of them—of cherrypicking the data, as we like to say in the research world, to try to support a predetermined conclusion.

In this case, as you can see, the person in the video was asked to solve a simple subtraction problem: 43-13. If you do this the old fashioned way, the problem is really easy to solve: just subtract three from three in the ones column and subtract one from four in the tens column. Voila! The answer is thirty. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The person in the video, of course, was taught to do this differently, and she shows every single step she was encouraged to follow. Have you ever known how to do something but had a hard time explaining it to other people? That’s what’s going on here. The truth is that the “scary” way this person was taught to solve the problem is actually the way most people would probably solve it, even if it’s hard to explain.

To see what I mean, try another problem: 43-18. If you do this problem the old fashioned way, you can see that there’s now more room for error: you’re subtracting 8 from 3 in the ones column, and even little kids know having to figure out 3-8 makes the problem a lot harder to solve. To do that you have to “borrow” from the tens column, and that’s where things can get confusing. Remember writing that little 1 up there next to the 8, then crossing out the four and making it a 3 to remind yourself that you borrowed? Yeah, that was so much clearer. Try doing all that in your head.

There’s a better way, and it’s the way described in the video. And that’s exactly the point: this method is especially helpful if you want to solve a problem in your head, or if you just want to quickly estimate the relationship between two numbers without concentrating too hard on getting the one single correct answer to a problem—if, in other words, you’re doing the kind of mathematical thinking most people actually do on an everyday basis. There’s nothing scary about it. And it won’t turn you into a math-loving cyborg if you do it.

But I didn’t write this column so I could give a math lesson. I have two other points to make. The first one is related to the tone and presentation of that video above, which has 14 million views already—a lot more than this blog will ever get. There’s a subtext to the video, just as there is with almost every other example from the genre. That subtext is: I know more about this than those supposedly smart people who study this all the time do. I know more because I have “common sense” and they don’t. And that’s why they’re wrong.

Ridiculous. For starters, that traditional way of doing math problems wasn’t invented by the common man while he was trying to figure out to build his log cabin; it came from mathematicians and math educators, just like this “new” method did. Just because it’s traditional doesn’t make it common sense, or better. In fact, the old way isn’t better; it’s just old.

And that speaks to the second point I want to make, which is that too many people reflexively celebrate “the way we’ve always done it” mainly because trying to learn another way makes them uncomfortable. Apparently some people are so concerned about being embarrassed for not knowing how to do something that they’re willing to make videos of themselves sharing their ignorance with the whole world. That doesn’t make much sense to me.

When did we become so scared of change that we couldn’t even tolerate the idea that our kids might do something in school that’s different than the way we did it? We used to call that progress. Personally, I want my kids to do things in school that stretch their minds in new directions. I want them to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of doing things. I want to be surprised by the work they bring home from school, impressed that they can do things that I don’t know how to do. When it’s all said and done, I want them to know more than I do. These methods make a lot of sense if you think about them—but you may have to take the time to think about them first. Not rejecting them out of hand is a crucial first step.

What can we say to parents who don’t want to hear this message? We might start with this: Maybe you think having kids learn math in essentially similar ways in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Mississippi is an infringement on your rights, and the next step down the slippery slope to tyranny. You have the right to feel that way if you want to, I guess. But you can set a better example for your kids, and everyone else’s too, by demonstrating just a little bit of intellectual curiosity. Think about the message you send to your kids (and other parents) when you blame someone else because you don’t understand your kids’ homework. Now think about the message you could send by admitting that you don’t get it and trying to figure it out anyway. You have the right to do that too. All you have to do is exercise it.

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