Is The Common Core Just Misunderstood?

commoncorelogo-color2Please forgive me if you hate the words Common Core. I don’t try to go out of my way to write about something controversial, but I know the potential firestorm for this topic. My first question to all those that abhor the Common Core is:  Do you every wonder why the Common Core came to light? Although I have background knowledge, I quickly did an Internet search to see what explanations abounded. Terms popped up like, ‘college ready’, ‘consistent expectations for all regardless of zip code,’ ‘national standards,’ etc.

There are a lot of people, both in and out of the education field that hate that explanation, so it is not one that I will support in this entry. Preparing students for the real world, yes, obviously that is something that we focus on as much as possible, but what does that even mean? The meaning probably depends on whom you are speaking with. All I can offer is my interpretation. I want to prepare students to think critically and deeply about any problem, whether numbers are involved or not. My hope is that students analyze problems carefully and reflect seriously about all options before trying to attack any problems in the “real world.” I think the Common Core actually helps with that objective.

Please allow me to offer my classroom perspective. I have been teaching math to students for 15 years. 10 years was in an elementary setting, and the last 5 have been in the middle school.  Within that 15 year span, teaching philosophies (as well as several math programs) have come and gone. Throughout all of the math trials and tribulations, one consistency remained; students were not retaining the math. I know this is not just a phenomenon I have witnessed, because if it were, there would be no Common Core. The traditional way of teaching math would involve students learning an isolated concept. After learning it, students would study it for several weeks with lots of practice examples. The examples might be peppered with some derived textbook problems and culminate with a test. This is how I was taught and I know how many of you were taught as well.

Immediately after the test, many students would promptly forget about the past concept(s) and move on to another topic. Some of the details would re-emerge as necessary, but many students would notice that previously learned concepts drifted out of their minds after moving on to another topic. There was little transfer of knowledge from the temporary memory to long-term memory storage in the brain. Some students would retain rote procedures, and be promptly labeled as math people. Those who were unable to remember were labeled another way.

This was and continues to be a huge problem. Math concepts build on one another. They only have the opportunity to do so when students actively make connections from one concept to another in experiences where they witness the fluidity. For those who label The Common Core as fluff and not real math, please allow me to assure you that it was not designed to eliminate the algorithms. In everything I have studied, the algorithm (procedures we all learned growing up) is still the goal.  The difference between direct procedural teaching and problem based learning is that students receive the opportunity to investigate the why first.  The investigation allows students the chance to actively make mathematical connections with the ‘why’ to the procedure. Often, when students are given a problem, it creates the interest in the procedure that would never have been there if it were the only teaching point. What does this mean for our students? Instead of promptly forgetting procedural math, visual and problem based learning allows students to double down on their understanding and have the option to not only solve a specific problem in a unit, but provides students with tools to figure out how to solve all problems as efficiently as possible.

One of the largest obstacles of this philosophy is the incredible push back against it. This does not just come from parents, but also from fellow teachers. Change is hard, no doubt about it, but I have seen with my own eyes the difference between students memorizing a procedure versus deeply understanding why they are using it. The difference is stark. The reality is that the transition has not been easy and we all feel the growing pains together. But fear not…

I truly believe that I am a much better math teacher today than I was 5 years ago. I can imagine and hope I will be that much more effective in 5 years compared with the way I teach today. This means my students will be better prepared for that scary real world we love to discuss. I credit my continued improvement to the Common Core because of my virtual colleagues. Math superstars like Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Robert Kaplinsky, Fawn Nguyen, Yeap Ban Har, and Andrew Stadel were likely brought together by The Common Core initiative. Thanks to social media and passion, we now have resources that allow us to collectively and positively impact our students’ minds.

I accept that challenge. The question is…do all of you? If the answer is yes, please stop picking apart The Common Core or shuddering at the mere mention of the term as if it were ‘Voldemort’ from Harry Potter. The Common Core’s evolution came from student necessity. It is time that we work together to address the ongoing needs of our students, parent communities, and even the frustrations when we fall short. Two words should not undermine our purpose nor our passion that were actually developed to ignite them both.

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Rediscovering Lessons

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One of the reasons math teachers often get a bad rap is because we fail to provide opportunities for students’ deep understanding of concepts. Ever since my wake-up call and recognition of just how tricky integer mastery was, I have tried finding ways to reach students at a deeper level. The algorithm is there, it is always there and usually discovered eventually by students. Nowadays, students visually see the concept by using integer tiles, the number line, and/or creating their own model that makes sense.

Every summer vacation I dedicate most of my time to researching the latest and greatest in math instruction. This past summer was no exception. Sometimes in my research, I rediscover a lesson I had seen before and then promptly forgot about. The task I just completed with my students is one such lesson.

The Mathematics Assessment Project offers some wonderful lessons and tasks. Students really benefit from the structure of the lessons themselves, and the built-in peer collaboration. The lesson I used can be found here: http://map.mathshell.org/lessons.php?unit=7105&collection=8

In a nutshell, students consider temperature changes that result from traveling from one city to another.  The collaboration occurs when students work with others to connect one city to another through temperature changing arrows. In some cases, the destination city’s temperature is provided, in others, the change in temperature is provided, and in the last scenario, the departing temperature’s city is provided.  In a lot of ways, it works like a crossword puzzle where students will figure out one answer, which will provide them the ability to find the next. Students also organically begin to discover why the algorithm works the way it does.

I followed the lesson with fidelity as I started with a pre-assessment, provided feedback, completed some whole class instruction to get students ready for the group task, and even conferenced briefly with those children who still needed some additional assistance after the activity was completed. The MAP writers recommend following the lesson the way they designed it. Before sharing their work with the world, the lessons are tested to ensure that they are effective.  I would be lying if I claimed that every lesson I created that I believed would be a rewarding experience for students in my mind turned out to be so in reality.  In other words, instead of experimenting with a lesson that I hoped would be  successful, these lessons have been tested so there is no risk involved. Amazing!

There are some resources that are worth revisiting out there in our global math world. Teachers who share their ideas with the world are pure gifts to educators and most importantly, to all of our students.  This experience reminded me that sometimes we might need to rediscover these educational treasures on another day to appreciate their value.