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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I Hate Tests

I hate using tests and I don’t know what to do about it.

There, I said it. I hate tests. I am not just referring to the standardized tests, which have their place, blah, blah, blah…or so we are told.

My least favorite question ever is, “Dr. Polak “Is this going to be on the test?”

My disdain for that question is not because I do not understand the anxiety. I too suffered from test anxiety, not the type where I would freeze up and my mind would go blank, but it was just as paralyzing in other ways. Like so many of my students, I was grade obsessed. If I didn’t receive a 100%, I felt like a failure. This was regardless of the subject. This obsession continued through my doctorate studies and exists to this day. In fact, every year I am required to take the Blood Borne Pathogens test and I feel the anxiety there too!

I know I am not alone. This is a very common extrinsic pressure for the students (and adults) in our country. One can almost equate it to an addiction. When you achieve a high score you feel so great and relieved and proud, but before you know it, you are right back distressing about the next test. You study even harder, you sleep even less, practice more and achieve another high score, but it is not enough. The last stellar grade is never enough.

Even though most teachers, me included, are mandated by their school district to give specific assessments and score them a certain way, it doesn’t mean we feel great about giving them or think that we should. The cycle of grade obsession is just one of the reasons for my guilty conscience; the deeper reason is what it does to those students when they do not achieve that top score. Time and time again, students deem themselves stupid or as failures the second they receive a low score. The result for many students is that they stop trying.  Year after year I witness students who tell me or show me that they no longer feel motivation to learn. They have suffered trauma from these low scores and they believe there is no reason to try because they will just fail anyway.

Although I considered myself a math brain type of a student (even though I have since learned it is not as black and white as we all believe), like so many other students, I reached a point where I felt stupid in math class. When I was in High School in the Freshman Geometry Fast track class, I might as well have worn a dunce cap. Like so many students, girls especially, I did not understand concepts as quickly as my classmates. Speed and accuracy in procedures were all that mattered. Achieving a deep conceptual understanding and connections within the mathematics field was not a goal. We were all just learning algorithms, memorizing steps, and moving on to the next scenario.

I don’t want to recreate that in my class. I have spent this year creating and adapting lessons that truly offer students the options to ask questions, think deeply, wonder, and, have a little fun. And yet during many of these adventures students ask first and foremost, “Is this going to be on the test?”

Sigh.

I want students to focus on the excitement, intricacies and fascination of math. If math class was designed to inspire problem solving and questioning, it would be done right. Students should be intrinsically motivated to look for patterns and make connections with numbers and shapes. The interconnectedness between numeric topics is something they should see based on classroom tasks. Assessment, in my perfect world, would be conversations and feedback of what is working, what isn’t working.

I know, I know, students are going to enter the “real world” where they will be tested.  There are many times in life that it does matter to get things right the first time. If someone is performing surgery for example, I don’t want the mentality of, oh, if I take out the wrong person’s appendix, I can just make sure I get the right person the next time.” Not everything in life has a re-do option, but not everything in life has to be perfect the first time without revision options either. I ask, what is the most important aspect of student learning? Do we want students to strive for perfection, or for perpetual self-improvement?

 

In Defense or Offense of Teaching Procedural Math? An Open Letter to Everyone.

Dear Mathematicians, Parents, Students, Educators, and All Interested Parties,

Is it a sign of weakness for a teacher to admit perpetual confusion on the best way(s) to administer instruction? Although I have been teaching for about 15 years, only a few of them have been spent teaching math at the middle school level. Since making the glorious move to middle school, the distinct advantage of pouring all of my extra time and energy into one subject has both reinvigorated my purpose and sent me down a path of wonder.

In my quest to prevent any student from truly thinking he or she does not have the math brain, the amount of articles consumed by me is, to say the least, staggering. Can I remember who wrote most of them? Not usually. I peruse for content. Only after multiple exposures from the same author do I start to take notice. This is why a few names have made their ways to the corners of my cerebrum  where the long term storage of my memory lives (Thank you Sousa). I usually refer to the information annoyingly as, “I read an article that stated…” Yes, I have turned into one of those people.

My favorite pastime is to research lesson structure ideas as this is my professional focus. Some of the names that continually pop up in my consumption within that topic are Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, and Yeap ban Har. Each of these math gurus share a common thread, which is that mathematics is a subject that spans beyond mere procedure. Although I could not agree more that math is not strictly procedural, each time I read an article I find myself asking, is there still a place, and furthermore, a need to teach procedure(s) in a math class?

If it is true that the best teachers steal from the best, in some small way, that categorizes me as the best. I have “stolen” lessons from my teaching counterparts, Dan Meyer, and Andrew Stadel.  The stolen lessons have been glorious experiences.  However, I do not believe any of the stolen lessons would have been successful if students had not possessed the background knowledge on procedures as well. Now I wonder, did I enhance their conceptual learning or detract from it with that viewpoint?

Our district was blessed by the personal teachings of Yeap ban Har. I spent a good month after that momentous training opportunity trying to design my lessons just like him. This was not easy to do with only one real half-day of training, but I really gave it my all. Some lessons went astonishingly well, others, not so much.

What I do know is my goal is to do better every single day. This is where I feel as if I am on the giant hamster wheel of math instruction.

In my mind, if students do not learn the concepts behind the math, the procedures for any and all algorithms will be meaningless. They will learn a series of steps, study them for a quiz or test, regurgitate them, and then quickly dump the total experience from their memory. Obviously, this reality is not true for all students. Those students who are excellent at rote memorization might remember the steps, but will they have any idea why they are performing them? If they don’t, can that be considered effective math teaching or learning? On the other side of this paradigm, sits many students who demonstrate conceptual learning but struggle with the rote procedures. For example, several students in my class this year forgot how to subtract opposite signed numbers using an algorithm, but when I placed a number line or integer tiles in front of them, they knew how to solve the problem immediately and could explain their thinking. Is their learning inferior because they cannot demonstrate their understanding in an algorithm?

The articles I have been reading lately push my questioning even further. I believe Jo Boaler flat out posited whether or not it is necessary for students to memorize their times tables. Is this type of thinking correct for educators, and more importantly, for students beyond the classroom?

Here is where I flat out ask the community for feedback.  Is there an appropriate balance needed in our classroom between concepts and procedures? Are procedures completely out of date or still necessary? Do we need to argue the opposite ends of the spectrum, or consider that the ideas are not opposing but supporting of one another? I ask you, in a growth mindset sort of way, to reflect carefully. Perhaps someone out there can inspire me to jump off of the hamster wheel, if only for a moment.

Sincerely,

A math teacher looking for answers.