Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The "common core check guy"

In the news recently, we see the story of Doug Herrmann. Doug is a father from Ohio who out of frustration with his child's math homework, wrote a check using common core methods. He was frustrated because he was unable to understand what the school was teaching his son, and therefore was unable to help his son with his math homework.

The ten card system that his “viral” check picture was intended to highlight is not a terrible method of mental math. One exception is that for some it abstracts the idea so far that it seems to become separate from the actual “math”. Utilizing grouping techniques is in no way a “bad” technique to understand mental math. However, it becomes a problem if too much emphasis is placed on a single rigid method.

Using the ten card system is one of many useful techniques for understanding grouping. We only run into problems when the standardized testing systems force children to “believe” there is only one right way. The testing should only test for the ability to solve problems and not for the strict adherence to a single “correct” way of getting there. The practice tests I have looked at appear as though they are actually structured that way. The second grade tests do emphasize place value, but do not seem to indicate a single method. Now as far as the rigidity of the teachers, I have not seen how this comes into play. I do know that in many instances students fall behind due to teachers being too strict in the techniques that you use.

Please understand that I am well aware that there has been a rising trend in math illiteracy. I am not completely blasting common core. I , along with other parents, have some questions about the implementation and flexibility of these standards.
Some questions I have include:
  • How flexible are the methods used ?
    • Are students being taught that the ten card system is the “only correct” method ?
    • Will students be penalized for utilizing other techniques to arrive at their answers ?
  • How are conflicts between common core, and how the parents teach their children handled ?
    • Do teachers penalize their students for the way their parents teach them to solve problems ?
  • Is there an awareness of the different ways people understand concepts ?
    • Is there an accommodation in place for students who understand place value through other means than just grouping visualizations? ( e.g. positional notation instead of ten cards.)
These questions go beyond just common core. The rigid adherence to single techniques has long been the culprit behind the fall in mathematics education.

On a personal note, I have been a victim to the rigidity of teachers. When I was in high school(many years before common core) I failed a math class simply due to my teacher not approving of my mental math techniques. To be fair, I would like to emphasize the math teacher was not actually a math teacher, she was a soccer coach moonlighting as a math teacher due to a poor student teacher ratio.
The conflict arose when I was forced to show my work(and by show my work I mean that my teacher wanted to see the remedial addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) This was an algebra class, where showing your work meant to show the steps taken to simplify the expressions. However, this instructor insisted we not just show that we had to multiply she wanted to see the actual steps we took to multiply. I thought this was odd in an algebra class, because learning to multiply was second grade. However, I did comply and attempted to be verbose with “showing my work”. However, my method of “long hand” multiplication was different from what she was taught. Most people are taught the “only” way to multiply is to start in the one column and carry and borrow and all these other concepts. I used a more “short hand” method which lends itself well to mental math. I would start with the highest power of ten column and work left to right instead of right to left. For example if I were to multiply two digit numbers I would start in the tens column and multiply no need for carrying and borrowing. You are just simply adding up zeros. This method isn't understood by all, but it was how I understood numbers and place value. Unfortunately, my math teacher was strict and rigid in how she wanted it done and failed me on all of my quizzes. I understood the algebra part and understood the basic calculations part, and arrived at the correct answer. I just applied a different method for the basic calculations.

Now my story is sadly similar to many other students. For most, these situations reinforce their frustrations with mathematics. It can quickly lead students to make snap judgments about the efficacy of learning and understanding math. They soon start to see math as a foolish endeavor with rigid methodologies not worth their time. Or they could simply just give up believing they will never understand and struggle to merely pass.

 I don't exclusively place the blame on teachers for the problem of rigidity. The parents also hold a share of the blame. As with the “common core check guy” Doug Hermann and some of the comments on his posting, they also find themselves rigid in their understanding. Simply not understanding a technique of solving a problem does not condemn it. Rather, it simply means you should probably learn more about it before condemnation.  

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