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.

Flipping my Teaching, Not Just my Classroom

My teaching approach is getting flipped upside down…repeatedly.

It all started with my on-line introduction to Yeap Ban Har’s discussion on number bonds. Here is the link for anyone interested:  Number Bonds . This was the first time my mathematical mind was blown. Throughout my years teaching elementary school, I had stumbled across multiple approaches in computation, but never had the pitfalls of memorizing procedures and algorithms without context been succinctly explained. This is literally a 2 minute 50 second video!

This one youtube video launched my researching life. Don’t get me wrong, I had always tried to search for great lessons, etc., but this was the first time I felt like I was (for lack of better explanation) doing everything wrong in my teaching.

The timing for this epiphany was not super as I was pregnant with my second child and about to take the majority of the school year off to take care of my baby. In between changing diapers, cleaning spit up, and a very snowy winter trapped in the house, any spare moment was spent investigating better ways to teach math. Fast forward through 10 months massive sleep deprivation, the trials and tribulations (and wonder) of having two children instead of one, and intermittent mathematical research, I was back in my classroom wondering what to change first.

I have written a post about my first foray into 3-act math, as the great Dan Meyer was also a new discovery to me during my maternity leave/initial research period. Not only did I “meet” Dan Meyer, I also was “virtually” introduced to Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinksy, Jo Boaler, and of course, the DESMOS and MTBOS communities. Although I have never actually met any of these mathematicians in person, this growing group of educators provides me with daily inspiration.

Throughout this year, many 3 act lessons have made their way into my classroom. One that I recently completed, Robert Kaplinsky’s Zoolander had me questioning if what I was doing was working. Were these lessons as amazing I thought? Did they provide students with a context that made the experience and math meaningful? Were students making connections in their brains? Was I providing enough structure? In short:  effective or not?

zoolander_school_large (1)

Whenever I try something new, it is normal for me to question myself. Acknowledging this fact, I can see that this has been a wonderful transformation for my teaching and math learning for my students. These lessons have had a major impact and I know this from events in the last few weeks. Several weeks after the Starburst lesson by Dan Meyer and the Zoolander lesson by Robert Kaplinsky, my students were referencing them in math conversations in the hallway and classroom. You read that right, the hallway!!! Apparently there was a question on the standardized test about scale models and the students were discussing how easy it was compared to the work they had to do in the Zoolander lesson. Another student commented that the Zoolander lesson helped them really understand the concept better than any book and that was why the question was so easy. I rest my case.

The Starburst lesson initiated a debate about sample space. A passionate debate! When does this happen from a textbook example? I have no reference for that. In short, these lessons make a difference.


At the same time I have felt success achieved in my teaching and by my students, it has also been an immense struggle for me professionally. This is especially poignant with my lower performing students. How do I convince them to believe in themselves and see the beauty in mathematics? If they don’t know the basics, can they still participate in these lessons with confidence? How often will they give the line of, “I don’t understand” in lieu of a rigorous debate with their peers and investigative excitement?

In all honesty, I have experienced both ends of the participation specturm from lower achieving students. Although I had read numerous and convincing articles by Jo Boaler, I only just obtained a copy of her wondrous book Mathematical Mindsets. As I am reading it, I am shouting, “YES! Oh my goodness, I agree! And then in the next minute I am asking, “How can I do this every day? When does procedural math come in to play, does it?” What does this look like lesson by lesson, day by day? Does it transform the students the way she says it does? I am so IN and can’t get enough, period.

As I was researching youcubed, I noticed an opportunity for the summer to attend a workshop with Jo Boaler in California. At this time, I cannot afford to fly to California, pay for the workshop and a hotel room, not to mention the childcare issue, but oh to dream. I am going to take Boaler’s courses through youcubed and finish her book soon. Every free moment I have is spent reading, taking notes, and rereading it. It is my current math bible.Jo Boaler's book

I do not have a neat and tidy way to wrap up this blog post. Once again, I am asking the mathematical world for a conversation about balancing the math classroom. Have you read Jo Boaler’s books? Have you tried 3-act math? What were your successes? What were your failures? How can we work together to keep the math conversation evolving and growing? Anyone else in? Leave a comment, tweet me at @drpolakmath, or send me an e-mail at The larger our community, the greater our collective success in helping all students achieve in mathematics. Who is with me?