Coming to Grips with My Son’s Common Core Math Lessons

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


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.

6 thoughts on “Coming to Grips with My Son’s Common Core Math Lessons”

  1. Thanks for this, there is a lot of disinformation out there and with my kid not at school age yet, I really hadn’t looked too deeply into why people were so upset. I think learning multiple ways of arriving at an answer will be a godsend to many people. As I’m currently taking “higher level” math courses, I can say that being able to manipulate problems in different ways is not just helpful, but often essential (and why I sometimes struggle with problems that require an intuition into substitution of variables/forms). Also, your comment on different educational standards rings very true. I was schooled in New York state for grades 1-8 (and took a HS-level course or two in 8th grade) and I couldn’t believe how easy school was when I came to Utah. Extremely dumbed down. Case in point, I went from getting a (semi-unfair, but the point stands) C in 8th grade English in NY to getting nearly 110% in my 9th grade UT English class. If we can get federal standards that would get my Utah raised daughter a NY level education, I’m all for it.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I feel your pain. I have a hard time in Utah as well. However, it is important to note that Common Core IS NOT a federal initiative; it’s a state-level initiative led by state governors and committees comprised of state-level officials and non-government educational experts. I’d like to see federal standards, but it’s not going to happen. Common Core isn’t a bad way to go, though, with an expectation of standards for the states that participate. Of course, since all of the curriculum is considered at the LOCAL level, if you have a problem with it, you need to get involved with your local school district and local school board to look for solutions.

  2. I struggled badly in math. It was because I was told the steps to solve a problem, but I didn’t understand *why* that worked. Class would move forward and learn new things and I’d be frozen.

    Eventually, I’d be able to come up with an understanding of the principles behind the math, and then I was able to move on. This was manifested in later courses like Geometry and Physics where the math has a *reason* behind it. I passed those classes with over 100% grade. But put me back in algebra and I’d struggle.

    I wish I had been able to learn math the way some schools teach it now.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I think the reason that so many parents are against this is because its not the way they learned, and they aren’t comfortable with it. I think, in the long run, this is better for more kids, since the goal is learn multiple strategies. Even if one doesn’t work for THEM right now, it works for others, and at some point additional strategies will be learned that DO work. It’s much more flexible, and allows for greater personalization down the road.

  3. The fact that Common Core seems to be teaching higher level concepts at a younger age is great. My son, in first grade, is already getting exposed to the term ‘algebra,’ which was taught to me much later when I was a kid. But really what is algebra? It’s taking 1+1=? and replacing the question mark with X.

    But some concepts seem to get overly explained. I guess time will tell if this helps. My son had a HW where he needed to subtract by 10’s and show the work in a number diagram. But he was able to just answer everything intuitively. And his teacher wrote that he needed to show his work. Everything in its right place.

    A big problem with Common Core is the speed it has been implemented and the lack of education both to parents and educators. Reading scores were ridiculously bad for my daughter’s middle school class last year and we’re in an excellent school district (in one of those rockin’ NY schools!). My daughter has a number of friends that opted not to take the state reading exam this year as a result.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I think you make a good point. Part of it is implementation. Carefully choose a curriculum. Give proper training to teachers. In some cases, the teachers aren’t sure how to implement, and parents don’t understand. I’ve heard of school districts that take the time to have teacher training, as well as classes for parents, and these districts are enthusiastic and get better results. Sometimes, we all need to learn together.

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