When my son was in first grade, I began noticing that some of his math lessons were different to the math lessons I had growing up. For the next couple of years, this frustrated me. I didn't always “get” the point of the lessons, and some of the work seemed needlessly complicated. I lashed out privately against curriculum based on common core math standards.
But, because I like to understand “why,” I began taking a closer look at his math lessons. I realized something about them. Many of them tackled the process behind getting the answer. There was a very clear parsing of the process of math, and not just a series of steps to mindlessly follow.
Now that he's in 5th grade, I've noticed something else about his math lessons. He's learned how to complete some processes in at least two different ways. This hit me like a hammer earlier in the school year. I've long been a supporter of the Common Core Standards, especially after learning more about how they actually work, since I know the reality of widely disparate educational standards from state to state. (My husband's pre-college education as a “regular” student in New York far outstripped my education as a “gifted” student in Idaho. A set of common standards would be nice.)
However, even with my general support for Common Core, I've been leery of the math curriculum taught at my school. (Common Core is not curriculum and local schools can implement standards as they wish, including tailoring instruction to students.) Looking at the process over a period of years, though, I find that I'm ok with the new way math is being taught, even though sometimes I am frustrated, and my son is frustrated, and I coped last year by teaching him the classic algebra I learned in junior high, which worked better than model drawing for his style of learning.
I'm ok with the new teaching style because I understand that not everyone learns like my son (and me), and I know parents and students who find some of the new curriculum a godsend because it tackles the process, and it offers more than one way to get an answer. An article on Vox was recently brought to my attention by an old high school friend who happens to have an advanced degree in mathematics. No, he's not an educator. But he is really, really deep into math, and the processes of math. The article pretty much summed up my feelings about the subject — and made the case that complicated math lessons are better in the long run.
Common Core Math is Complicated, But That's Not a Bad Thing
It's true that not all kids do well with all of the common core math strategies taught. However, the important thing is that they are learning different strategies for solving the same problem. As they grow and learn different strategies, they will eventually be able to choose which method works best for them in different situations. Yes, some of it's hard. But the reality is that we can do hard things. And our children should learn to do hard things. Plus, learning multiple ways of getting the same answer encourages flexibility in problem solving, as well as creative and critical thinking skills.
It's not just about getting an answer, it's about thinking about how to get an answer. And, while it doesn't make a lot of sense to some of us parents, whose minds are largely developed and stuck in certain patterns, the brains of children and adolescents are agile and developing. No, some of the strategies aren't going to work for every child. But, newsflash, not everyone I grew up with did well with the “traditional” method of teaching math. Common core math will get to teaching the old familiar methods many of us know and hated in our youth, but it also addresses these other strategies, and provides insight into the “why,” which should (hopefully) help bring our children up to the math level experienced by children in other developed nations.
In a world where STEM is becoming important, and where mental flexibility and problem-solving ability are increasingly vital, teaching our children to be able to identify which strategy works best for their specific style of learning, and teaching them multiple ways of getting the same answer is desirable.
We live in a complicated world. Our children should learn how to think with complexity. Common core math is just one strategy for achieving this ability to think about and deal with complicated topics.