If you have kids in public school, or if you spend any time on social media, you’ve probably heard, read, or written at least one rant about the new “common core” math (which isn’t really new at all, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).
Parents and teachers are understandably frustrated trying to help young students learn problem-solving techniques that they don’t understand themselevs, and which seem so terribly complex compared to the “carry-the-one” method we all learned in school.
Let me direct your attention to two words in the paragraph above: problem-solving. The object of these convoluted techniques is not to teach kids how to most efficiently find the answer to a particular calculation, but to illustrate and illuminate mathematical concepts and engage students in problem-solving strategies. Both of these are critically important if our kids are to become mathmatically literate – not just cranking out answers by rote, but understanding why those mechanical algorithms work, what’s happening to the numbers under the hood.
This is our chalkboard after my kids, as a team and with some guidance from me, produced the answer to 3421 x 54. After we worked through the whole thing, they shrieked when they tapped the numbers into their calculators and verified their answer.
Yes, it took us ten or fifteen minutes to work through. Yes, it involved drawing pictures, invoking “5 times 10 apples” repeatedly to get past the multiplying thousands hurdle, and many more intermediate steps. No, I don’t expect anyone who hasn’t researched and learned this method to understand how we got from Point A to Point B… though I am happy to explain (to the best of my ability) how and why we did it this way to anyone interested.
At the end of it all, my second graders, my 6 and 7 year-olds who are just beginning to soak times tables into their brains, understand that they are able to multiply huge numbers just as easily as they do 2 x 2. They are believers, but better yet, they are understand-ers. They are learning not only how to do multiplcation, but what it means and how to apply it to other situations that involve multiplying numbers (as well as realizing which situations do call for multiplication, because problems in real life don’t come with nice neat vertically-arranged, place-value-aligned numbers to manipulate).
This is what learning math is all about. This is the math that they will use as adults. This is the math that is so much more than memorization and rote calculation, that will live inside them as one of the many problem-solving tools they acquire through their school years, that will make them truly mathmatically literate as adults, even if it’s not a focus of their higher education.
I understand the frustration surrounding “new” math (whatever it is that’s “new” this generation), but there is a baby in that messy bathwater and it’s in the best interest of all of our kids to not toss that gem out with the confusion and misunderstanding.