Start reasoning and thinking more flexibly about Common Core

Common Core is one of today’s hot-button issues. As with any innovation, it has faced many obstacles for implementation, including gaining support from educators, training teachers and developing the best methods for evaluation. The greatest obstacles stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the need for as well as the paradigmatic shift required to adopt Common Core.

Just scan some of the opinions shared through social media. If you have friends who are parents or educators, you’ve probably seen a rant or two (or hundreds, or thousands) over the past five years.

Challenging the simple

The most common argument against Common Core I’ve seen is that the standards and instructional methods are making it more difficult to teach and learn basic skills.

My 6th grade teacher shared an article today on Facebook. The article, titled “Arkansas mom exposes Common Core for the nightmare it is,” features a video in which a mother voices concerns and challenges the school board to answer a math problem given to a fourth grader.

Are you smarter than a Common Core fourth grader? Let’s find out. The problem is: Mr. Yamato’s class has 18 students. If the class counts around by a number and ends with 90, what number did they count by?

Are you smarter than a Common Core fourth grader?

I wanted to think I was smarter than a Common Core 4th grader because I had some of the best elementary teachers and I’ve spent about 25 years as a student of public and private educational institutions.

As soon as I read the math problem, I began to rack my brain for the simple formula that would give me the correct answer. I became distracted, wondering what it meant when the class “counts around.” Did every student count an equal number of times? Did Mr. Yamato participate? How many times did the class count around? I struggled to answer the question because I didn’t know what the problem was. I almost gave up and thought, “that’s just a silly problem.”

Not trained to reason and think flexibly about numbers

Then I began to think back to my elementary years when I was learning to add, subtract, multiple and divide. I remembered some of the “rules” which I had memorized but I mostly remembered all the practice with worksheets where I had been given simple, formulated problems to which I could show my memorization of the rules and my competence for following the prescribed procedure. This formulaic repetition of dividing 90 by 18 might get me one right answer, but it fails to develop the reasoning abilities I need to be successful today. It’s extremely difficult for me to think flexibly about numbers. I think there should be only one right answer to the problem because that’s the way I learned it. However, it’s taken me about 40 years to realize there are multiple ways to think about problems.

If only Mr. Yamato’s students were counting (assuming all students were present for the activity) and all 18 students participated an equal number of times, then they could have counted by 5 (going around the classroom once) or they could have even counted by 2.5 (going around the classroom twice and counting by fractions, which are also numbers).

One thing I like about Common Core

As good as my elementary teachers were, I wish they had been challenged to teach me to think more flexibly about numbers back then. That’s what I like about Common Core standards. It would have spared me many hours of frustrations–especially when I was conducting my own quantitative research and analyzing statistics.

My dream

Now, as a university educator, I dream of the day when my classes are filled with students who think more deeply, more critically, and more creatively about the world around them. That day is going to challenge us and sharpen us.