Monday, January 18, 2016

Introducing Brittany, the (usually) silent partner

So Lindsey finally convinced me to blog - if you’ve ever met me, you will truly understand how big of a deal this is. Writing was never my favorite; math was truly my only interest in school all the way through college, so when I finally landed a job as a math interventionist, it was like winning the lottery (maybe not the most recent powerball, but you get where I’m going with this). I started my new role a year and a half ago and can officially say I will never willingly leave this position. Being able to work individually with the most struggling math learners and see real growth is truly invaluable, and having the best partner to work with is a bonus!

As Lindsey mentioned in the first post, we don’t really consider ourselves serious bloggers or expect a million followers any time soon - it should take at least a couple months to hit the million follower mark, right? We really just want to get our ideas out there to try and open people’s minds about math. The first thing I wanted to discuss is the idea of “new math.” Note: the following rant was inspired by a man very important to me - I won’t give away his real name, but I usually call him “dad.”

So this “new math” stuff…spoiler alert, it’s not new! For as long as humans have had a brain and been learning math, the way the brain develops and understands the concepts of numbers has not changed. School curriculums, however, have changed more than I care to think about. I have been a teacher for five years and have already been exposed to two math curriculums and three literacy curriculums. We’re always trying to find the newest, best way to teach kids; everyone definitely has good intentions, but we’ve made things far too complicated. Currently in Wisconsin we teach the Common Core standards (cue the booing, hissing, and grimaces). Alright… you’re still here? Good, glad we got that out of the way. The point of Common Core - and hopefully all newer curriculums - is to get back to basics. Get back to letting kids play with manipulatives and discover the foundational mathematical concepts of how numbers work. We need to stop teaching tricks and shortcuts before they understand why they work. That’s it! Everyone was so worried about getting our math scores to advance that we forgot to make sure they were understanding the math we were teaching. Instead we jumped to teaching meaningless, memorized procedures. The Common Core does not tell teachers how to teach math, it simply states what each student should know by the end of a given school year. Teachers are now allowed to use their college degree, along with creativity and professional judgement, to design instruction that best meets the needs of their students - crazy, right? So you’re probably wondering what my dad has to do with this… well, here’s the story: I was vacationing with my whole family in Las Vegas last summer (we went to see a Rush concert, don’t judge) and my dad made a comment about the “new math” and how we shouldn’t change the way it was taught when he learned math. So I decided to explain my stance through the application of a math problem, of course! I told him to do the following problem mentally: 16 x 6. He quickly came up with the answer 96. When prompted how he solved the problem, he said that he knew 10 x 6 was 60 and 6 x 6 was 36, and 60 + 36 = 96. Boom! Without even knowing it, he fully validated the common core. A lot of students I work with now do not have these flexible, mental strategies. They only know the written algorithm, which would have taken twice as long, required a pencil and paper, and even the slightest error could have made the answer far from reasonable (which they probably wouldn’t have recognized as unreasonable, but I’ll save that for another day). We want our students getting back to understanding how numbers work together so math makes sense to them. The Common Core emphasizes slowing down the learning process, giving kids time to make sense of their problems, and encourages students to use multiple strategies. We also encourage our students to explain their strategies; if you can explain why something works or doesn’t work, then you’ve shown a true understanding of that concept.

Phew, we made it! Thanks for sticking through to the end. Like I said earlier, I’m not much of a writer - but when I get started with something I’m so passionate about, I tend to get a little worked up :)


  1. Written like a true wordsmith by someone bordering on true genius. I understand the concept but fail to see the reasoning for complicating the already complicated science of math. Having said that I can see where this understanding and the teaching of numbers at an early age could give children a better grasp than just the memorization we were taught. Rock On R 40.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Brent! We really want to inspire people to be a bit more open minded, even just the tiniest bit, regarding the way math is being taught. There are a lot of (non-teacher) opinionated folks on the internet that make the Common Core sound really outrageous and scary. Thanks for reading!

  3. As you point out, the math standards are focused on the same math that Euclid and Pascal did back in the day. Math isn't just an encyclopedia of procedures. Just as science is a process of experimentation to build understanding and solve problems, the practice of mathematics is a creative process, involving lots of experimentation, to develop models of real-world scenarios and design algorithms to solve problems. Being able to use a given algorithm isn't the end of the story, it's just one skill in a much bigger mission, which is to help kids be creative modelers and problem-solvers. Great post!

  4. AMEN SISTER!!!! I am SO glad I read this post--I try to explain this to anyone I can to spread the word! I love when people say, 'This common core way of teaching math is stupid' (or something similar). My response is, there is NO SUCH THING as a Common Core 'way of teaching'. The Common Core is simply a set of standards and we as teachers have the flexibility to teach it how we see fit! I love the example with your dad--I might have to use that trick on the next person who tries to bring this up to me :)