A mom paves a path to math understanding through Common Core

I never enjoyed math class. In fact, it was the least enjoyable part of my school day, elementary school through college. And when I was forced to think about math, memorization didn’t get me far because I am a big-picture thinker. I need to understand the overarching concepts in order to make sense of the details. I passed basic math and geometry and algebra, but by the skin of my teeth, and I hated every moment of it.

When I began to see examples of Common Core math lessons on social media, I realized that this is how my brain was trying to approach mathematics all along. I wasn’t bad at math. I just wasn’t taught in a way that made sense to my big-picture brain.

I was trying to understand math as the language that it is. I didn’t just want to memorize a formula – I wanted to know the why behind the formula. I needed to understand how it worked. I remember frequently coming to answers on homework problems without knowing where the answer came from. I knew it was right, but I didn’t know why.

As the mother of a kindergartener and preschooler, I want to find out everything I can about the kind of lessons they will be learning in the coming months and years. And you don’t have to spend much time on social media to run across somebody who is very upset about the Common Core –specifically Common Core math. You’ve probably seen those videos and images in your newsfeed that show us just how nonsensical this new math is. You see it compared with the way most of us learned (“the old way”).

And, indeed, this new way is very confusing to those of us who did not learn it this way in school.

Unfortunately many of these complaints are not actually directly related to the Common Core Standards, but are instead more closely tied to the curriculum choices of individual schools and the extent to which the parents and teachers actually understand what is being taught.

As adults, we expect that elementary-level mathematics questions should be easy for us. It’s a reasonable expectation.

Of course parents are angry that their children are bringing home assignments that seem like gibberish to them. But our problem is not so much schools’ compliance with Common Core, or even the standards themselves, but in the implementation of the new curriculum and in our understanding of mathematics as a whole.

Math is language. It is communication, interaction, manipulation passed back and forth between entities. A change in one number ripples out to affect processes and results. Math has the ability to fortune-tell with formulas that can reliably predict what happens next. It is more than rote memorization of tables and charts. It is fluid, not rigid.

Not that there is no room for memorization or formulae within mathematics, but to reduce this learning to little more than variables and multiplication tables… well that would be missing the point.

What I see in the new math curricula is children learning the why. Is it more complicated than learning a formula? Undoubtedly. But in learning the reasons behind math, we are setting them up to understand mathematics better in the long run.

Imagine trying to learn a new language without understanding how it works. Sure, you could memorize phrases from a phrasebook, but it’s very difficult to become fluent in a language without understanding the mechanics of it. The conjugations, the tenses, the inflection and nuance of language are integral. Without these things, language falls flat and is no longer the beautiful and dynamic expression that it can be.

It’s important to me that my children have the opportunity to be exposed to math in this context: as something that can actually be understood. I want them to see math’s big-picture concepts that can later be applied in infinite ways. And yes, the transition is difficult for parents and children alike because it is new and unfamiliar. But just as I wouldn’t expect to be comfortable helping my child with his French homework since I never learned French, I will expect to be challenged as I learn to understand mathematics in a new light. My kids and I can learn together. What a gift.

Math is finally being approached as the language that it is, so if you hope as I do to help your child understand it, you will need to do some studying yourself. You will need to come to terms with the fact that it’s not always going to make sense to you, and that doesn’t make you a failure as a parent or an educator, nor does it make the standards or the lessons “a joke.”

It just means that we are learning a new language together, and that takes time.

What do you think?
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Sarah Kovac

Sarah Kovac

Sarah Kovac is a journalist who is driven by her desire to know how things work. As the mother of a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, education and child psychology have come to be a couple of her greatest passions. She's been known to dig as deep as neuroscience to understand how her kids' minds work, and all her research has left her a little disappointed in the state of our education system. Sarah lives with her husband and kids just outside of Kansas City, MO.
Sarah Kovac

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