On Common Core Math

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My Facebook page has been alight with anger over the concept of “Common Core” math – the new way we’re teaching math to young children.  They’ve posted pictures of Common Core examples, decrying their complexity, the stupidness of needing a new method when the old methods we had worked just fine, and how dare teaches do this stupid thing.
One of the most common ones I’ve seen going around is this:
Common Core
Yeah.  My question is, do you realize how fucking hard the concept of “borrowing” is to someone who’s unfamiliar with math?
What I’m seeing here is a twofold storm of ignorance and fear:
1)  Explaining things to newbies is entirely different from explaining things to experienced people.
Look, I sell Magic: the Gathering cards for a living – a complicated card game with a ton of rules.  And time after time, I’ve seen experienced players try to teach newbies how to play the game…
…and they often confuse the newbies so much that they alienate them.
The problem is, the experienced players have been slinging cards for so long that they’ve forgotten how hard this game was in the first place.  So when they teach, they tend to concentrate on the things that players who are bad at the game need to know – which is an entirely different thing than what players who are totally unfamiliar with the game need to know.
So they rush past the core concepts of the game – the base mechanics that they’ve internalized so thoroughly that they don’t even think about them any more – to focus on things that make no sense if you don’t get those fundamentals.  I’ve heard them casually saying things like, “Okay, you gotta remember to play instants at the last minute, and leave your mana untapped until you need it” to baffled people who barely understand which card is which.
It’s a testament to how much fun Magic is that thousands of people still play it, despite these substandard introductions.  But Wizards of the Coast, being a smart company, recognizes that the #1 barrier to entry for Magic is overcomplexity, and so periodically creates products that are newbie-friendly.  And those novice-aimed products are often scorned by the “experienced” Magic community as being too simple, too stupid, too strategy-free.
“I learned it the old way!” they cry.  “And I still understood!”  Forgetting entirely that a) it took them a lot more effort to ingest that knowledge than they remember now that it’s reflexive, and b) a lot of people didn’t learn it, and walked away, and if the goal is to get as many people playing Magic as possible then maybe ignoring the failures isn’t your best idea.
Likewise, this Common Core example isn’t a fair example.  Yes, there are fewer steps in the upper diagram – but conceptually, sorting each number into neat rows stacked on top of each other, and knowing that you can borrow a number, and understanding that the borrows cascade, and remembering the edge cases, are actually pretty hard to get for many kids.  I know I struggled with it.  There’s a ton of buried complexity in this, and I’m pretty sure if you showed this same thing to two people unfamiliar with large subtraction problems, the more visual example below might work better.
Plus, the Common Core example below is a better way of conceptually explaining things.  Yes, kids can learn the rote method of “stack and subtract,” but that doesn’t actually teach them to internalize how math works.  When I’m looking to figure out what the difference is between a dollar and 97 cents, I don’t mentally place a 100 on top of a 97 and go through it column-by-column – I count forwards from the lesser number until I hit 100.
It could be argued that in fact, the old beloved style actually presents a barrier to conceptualizing math, sort of like teaching kids that the letters S-I-N-K mean “sink.”  It’d work.  It’d get them to recognize what a phone is.  But without presenting all the complicated phonetics behind it, getting them to spell out each letter, they’d probably not really understand the concept of words – they’d understand that a few grouped letters mean a handful of things, but not be able to extrapolate that to dope out new and unfamiliar words.
And even aside from that, from what I am told the Common Core doesn’t replace the old method, it supplements it.  Here is where I venture into the unfamiliar waters of “people said,” but from what I’m led to believe the old method is still taught in class – it’s now just one arrow in a quiver full of approaches to help gets learn to add big numbers.  If someone happens to find the columnar method more intuitive, they can use that in their heads.  It’s whatever sticks.
Which brings me to point #2:
2)  Parents are fucking terrified of looking stupid in front of their children, and hate to actually do homework.  Again, here I venture into theory, but I think much of the backlash against Common Core stems from the fact that a lot of parents get off on being the all-knowing wise folk, and looking dumb in front of their kids robs them of a special power.  Having to sit down with their kid and go “I don’t know how to do this” makes them feel like the schools are somehow showing them up.
And then they find themselves back in grade school, forced to understand a new concept.  They’re not just helping their kid with homework; they’re back in grade school doing homework, and grah I learned what I need to I shouldn’t have to work to internalize some new approach what I knew worked fine.  And rather than acknowledging that discomfort of this is something I don’t know,  they instead freak the fuck out about how ridiculously hard this all is and it’s difficult and won’t someone think of the children?
But those someones are thinking of the children.  If it’s hard for you, remember back to those early days when everything was hard for you.  Regardless of whether you use the upper old version or the bottom new version, your kid is going to struggle to import these new ideas into their head – and bitching about the approach because you don’t get it seems small, anti-education, and churlish.
And hey, maybe your kid is finding Common Core too complex.  Maybe that’s because for her, the upper example is more intuitive.  But I wonder how much of that struggle stems from the fact that Mommy and Daddy are expressing obvious frustration with it, bitching I don’t know why they do this, and sending the signal to your kid that this is actually a dumb way to approach it.  They pick up on things like that, kids.
So my take?  Is that yeah, it’s more work for you, but as a parent, your job isn’t to make your life easy.  It’s to do what’s best for your kids. And if that means you have to go back to grade school again and start over, well, go back and sit down next to your kid in class and learn along with them.
Teach them that everyone feels dumb from time to time.  That even Mommy and Daddy never stop learning new things, and that new things are exciting.  Because honestly, that’s a way better lesson they’ll learn than anything they can get in school anyway.
EDIT: I’ve had a lot of people saying, “I don’t like it when my kid switches schools and has to learn Common Core under the assumption that he’s been taught it all his life,” or “I don’t like Common Core because my kid can already subtract the old way and they’re punishing her for not knowing this new method,” or even “I don’t like it because the schools don’t give me any warning or context and now I have to train my kid with no help.”
In that case, you are not actually complaining about Common Core.  You are complaining about an inflexible educational system that is utilizing Common Core improperly.  Note how your complaint is not actually that Common Core is too hard, recognize that this essay is chastising those who criticize Common Core because it is too hard, then take your valid concerns about a one-size-fits all educational approach and move on.   This was not meant for you.


  1. adastra
    Apr 3, 2014

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with both #1 and #2 – but especially #2. I work with family-oriented science programs, and it’s very hard to convince parents that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” (or – much better – “I don’t know, how could we find out together?”) in front of their kids. This gets passed along, and then no one in our society ever wants to “not know” something. I could reference stacks of research on the influence parents have on children – their behavior, attitudes, decisions, achievement, etc. It’s not surprising at all that parents’ opinions (“math is hard,” “science is just for smarter kids,” “your teacher is wrong”) rub off on their kids.
    But the most frustrating thing about this hysteria about the Common Core is that these examples aren’t even part of the Common Core standards! They’re examples of a wide variety of math teaching strategies employed in today’s classrooms, and they’ve been around for a while in various curricula and recommended teaching practices. The Common Core standards “are the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.” I encourage everyone to look at them (here are the math standards), especially when people are freaking out about kids’ quizzes with “subtraction sentences” or whatever. Here’s a typical Grade 2 Common Core math standard:
    Fluently add and subtract within 100 using strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.

    There’s no specific recommendation or requirement on how a school system, teacher, or textbook should help a child meet that standard. That is up to them. And there are many different teaching strategies available – the examples going around are just some of them. But they’re not “Common Core.” In addition, Common Core hasn’t even been adopted in most places – and even when it is, it’ll be at least a school year or two before those states actually implement the new standards. These examples and Common Core just aren’t even related, and it’s tragic that they’ve been conflated in such a way that may impair rational discussion about them in many states.

    • adastra
      Apr 3, 2014

      Realized I mis-typed – I should’ve said: “In addition, Common Core hasn’t even been fully adopted in most places – and even when it is, it’ll be at least a school year or two before those states actually finish implementing the new standards.”
      There’s still a lot of work between a state board of education adopting the standards and the local school districts and classrooms implementing them.

  2. ellixis
    Apr 3, 2014

    Looking at the bottom example, I actually feel that’s much more intuitive, much easier, and actually is a lot more like the way I do math when I have to do math. I enjoy math when I understand it, but I’ve always struggled with it, slow and ponderous, and the concept of using chunks of numbers to make addition and subtraction easier is something I came to late and on my own.
    You make a very good point about the unfamiliar and the basics of a new understanding, and I hope that people will be willing to take another look and a patient approach to something that may help their children learn more effectively.
    Incidentally, my mother prefers asking me to teach her something new on the computer rather than asking my father, for the exact reason you outline: he knows so much that he forgets to give her all the information, where I am careful to lay out each baby step as we go.

    • Geneva Chapman
      Jul 15, 2016

      Me, too. I taught mathematics as part of primary and elementary curriculum and in after school program for high school students with autism. My first teaching assignment was a summer school class for sixth graders who flunked math. I used a variety of hands-on methods to teach what was my most difficult subject as a student and it worked.

  3. Marchbanks
    Apr 3, 2014

    Bashing new methods of math instruction has been providing entertainment for years. As thus:

  4. Larc Bogda
    Apr 4, 2014

    Common Core does not tell you how to teach math. What you are talking about is Everyday Math, or Chicago Math, which is a math curriculum. CC is NOT a curriculum, but rather a list of goals that every child is expected to reach at the end of each grade. For example, in Kindergarten, one of the standards is: Counting and Cardinality A.1. Count to 100 by ones and tens. THAT’S IT. Teach it however you like, but make sure you teach it and the kids master it. There are many standards for each grade, in math and language arts. Science and Social Studies standards have not been released for elementary yet. Hope this clears things up a bit.

  5. Greg T.
    Apr 4, 2014

    The piece I have trouble with in the new common core presentation is that I see an exciting new concept – namely that not everyone learns math the same way. Applied wrong. Namely, Now EVERYONE will have to master ALL the ways to learn math.
    Instead of seeing a variety of approaches to explaining a concept, with the idea that kids will latch on to the one that makes sense… I have to hear my child say “I don’t understand! WHY do I have to spend hours doing the same problem six different ways? I know the answer, it’s RIGHT HERE. Why should I make endless number tapes to get the SAME ANSWER?”
    … and I have to say, honestly? “Because kiddo, you have to learn that in life you do things the dumb, long way so that you have jumped through all the hoops that someone wants you to jump through.”
    … hence math at our house has now become less a lesson in the magic of numbers, and more of a lesson in how to navigate the DMV.

  6. Mike W.
    Sep 15, 2014

    Make no mistake, I have no fear of looking stupid. My issue is this. With a demanding job (that allows me to cook the supper that I am working on while working on homework). I have no additional time to work on new concepts in math. My complaint is that I don’t have the time to invest in this. Time is a precious commodity that is not always easy to come by. Pretty broad assumption that I’m fucking terrified about looking stupid in front of my kid. Show me data that this is so and I’ll buy it. Otherwise make no assumptions, it makes an ass out of you and me.

  7. Geneva Chapman
    Jul 15, 2016

    Thanks for this! I had the opportunity to hear and meet Dr. Constance Kami at a conference. A student of Piaget, she tried for years to get schools to unravel math so that it is developmentally aligned with young children Common Core does that.

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