Thoughts on the Common Core 5×3 problem

I recently read about a 3rd grade student whose seemingly correct answer to 5×3 was marked as incorrect by his teacher.  Details of the issue are here.

A Common Core supporter defends the teacher here. Follow the link to get his words directly, but part of his argument is “…but here’s the beauty of it: It won’t be long before they can do 11 x 27 in their heads.”

Is the fact that someone can’t do 11 x 27 in their head really a problem that needs solving? Furthermore, given that basically everyone carries around a phone with a calculator in it – I’m not sure I still believe that it’s that important for someone to be able to do 11 x 27 on paper. (I know that’s a bold statement and it’s not an easy thing for me to say. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a situation today where someone is going to suffer because they can’t figure out the answer to 11 x 27 without the use of a calculator.)

I’m not a “I could never do math either” kind of guy. I was on the math team in high school. I got perfect scores on the math sections of the ACT and SAT. I’ve got a degree in Electrical Engineering that required lots of calculus.  I can do 11 x 27 in my head and would have done it exactly the way that the Common Core support explains. I’m what you’d call a “math person”.

Here’s the thing. I firmly believe that some people’s brains are wired so that mathematical concepts come easy to them, and that trying to teach everyone to think this way is an uphill battle. This is not a smarter/dumber thing. People are different. I’m good at math but there are a lot of things that I struggle with. (Ask my wife. She’ll be happy to give you details.)

When I went to my first math tournament in 9th grade, there was a question that went something like this – “Calculate the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + … + 98 + 99 + 100”. After we got back, my teacher said “there’s a trick to doing problems like that”. If you re-arrange the sequence to pair numbers starting from the outside and add parentheses like this – (1 + 100) + (2 + 99) + (3 + 98) + … + (50 + 51) – you realize that each of those adds up to 101. There are 50 pairs, so the answer is 50 x 101. Easy, when you know the trick. Not only that – but it works for a sequence ending  in 100, 100, 1 million, or 1 billion.

It’s a neat parlor trick, but that’s all it is.  It seems like I used it at every math tournament I ever went to, but I feel safe in saying that my adult life wouldn’t have been any worse if I had never learned this trick.

I think a lot of what’s being taught in common core math is like this. I think if you have a “math brain” (for lack of a better term), the concepts they are trying to teach come naturally to you. If you don’t, I think being asked to think about math this way just adds to the frustration of what’s already a tough subject for you.

Let’s teach math, but let’s also realize that not everyone is going to be a mathematician or engineer, so we don’t need to try to get everyone to think like one.  For a lot of kids who view school as sort of a prison sentence to suffer through, this is cruel and unusual punishment.

My Response to Common Core has nothing to do with this

Excerpt: “While this worksheet does present a frustrating situation, it has nothing to do with Common Core. Common Core lays out a set of objectives for what students should be learning in each grade level. It’s still up to individual states, districts, and teachers to come up with the curricula and lesson plans to achieve those objectives.”  – Andy Kiersz

If you look at the Common Core website, there are specific grade level standards. I think that’s what he is referring to when he talks about “a set of objectives”. But – at the bottom of the page, in the Mathematics Standards section, it says (emphasis added):

These standards define what students should understand and be able to do in their study of mathematics. But asking a student to understand something also means asking a teacher to assess whether the student has understood it. But what does mathematical understanding look like? One way for teachers to do that is to ask the student to justify, in a way that is appropriate to the student’s mathematical maturity, why a particular mathematical statement is true or where a mathematical rule comes from. Mathematical understanding and procedural skill are equally important, and both are assessable using mathematical tasks of sufficient richness.

I feel like the teacher in this incident could defend his/her action with these statements. So, yes – Common Core does have something to do with it.

H/T to the Leada Gore for the article on that made me aware of all of this.