When I meet people, conversations often turn towards the topic of “What do you do?” Well, I am a math teacher; no... a Middle School Math Teacher. I’m sure some of you just raised your eyebrows, think I'm crazy, believe you could never do that, or perhaps, even offered me a small (silent) prayer for my struggles. I’ve taught mathematics for 7 years, 5 at the highschool level and 2 at the middle school level. If I’ve learned anything in those 7 years it’s this: mathematics, specifically: the teaching and learning of mathematics, brings up strong feelings in people. There are people that love math. Those that hate it. Those that teach it. Those that understand it’s necessary. The list goes on...In short, mathematics brings out an emotional response of some sort in most people.
Typically, if a conversation makes it past this seemingly shocking revelation, I get asked, “What do you think of common core math?” (which GA isn’t “officially” following anyway) or some variation of it to determine my “New Math” stance. Honestly, common core math isn’t the problem; it never was the problem. Our various reactions to it are the problem. Pretty much everyone reading this will have been educated under the “old math” system. There was nothing wrong with “the old system” either, it did a good job of teaching students mathematics, too. However, this is where most of the conflict appears to come from.
As a student in old system, I knew what was expected. I had to provide answers to a set of problems on test, typically using a memorized procedure or skill, such as “borrowing” when subtracting. I was good at this system; I knew how to memorize and I knew how to replicate. Many of you reading this were “good” at this system of learning mathematics. Then common core came along and busted up the old system, by challenging our notions of what it meant to teach and learn mathematics.
One of the main things that is different about common core math is that it no longer emphasizes “right answers”. Instead common core challenges students (and parents, teachers, etc) to think about the ways in which a problem could be solved, rather than just providing an answer. This change in focus (finding answers vs. finding methods) is where, in my experience, many people get angry at common core because they don’t understand a method the student was taught. They don’t see a point in the unfamiliar method; they know an easier way....the list goes on and on. Yet those that critique common core mathematics are missing, what I believe is, the point of even teaching students math in schools in the first place. You see, math education isn’t just about finding X, or multiplying decimals, or adding 2 + 2, math education is about pushing students to face unfamiliar situations and come up with ways to resolve these situations, just as we do in everyday life. For example, I recognize and understand that many of my students really won't use the Pythagorean Theorem outside of school. Especially if I used the “old math way” of showing my students the formula (I bet you still have it memorized!) a2+b 2=c2 and then just said now find a, b, or c and do these 25 problems for homework...The test is next week.
Sure some students would excel with this approach and most would do alright on the test the next week. However, once we moved on to a new topic many would forget the skills and procedures memorized. This approach clearly misses the mark on helping prepare students for everyday life, as there is no long term benefit to memorizing something to just forget it the next week. However, if instead of giving the formula, I ask students to study a bunch of random triangles and determine a pattern (with the goal being that they develop the pythagorean theorem) then I have provided them with much deeper learning and a skill that is applicable in everyday life, ie deductive reasoning.
So we can continue arguing about “new math” (common core) vs old math or we can move forward to helping our children understand what is being asked of them now and guide them towards success in math. This, of course, brings up