4 Ways Common Core Math Helps Students

It’s no secret that Common Core math has stirred up a lot of controversy and emotion. Letters, videos and critiques of Common Core math regularly show up on social media, with many posters complaining that Common Core math is unnecessarily confusing and not at all helpful.

But solid research into how kids learn suggests that the Common Core math standards, which emphasize understanding over rote memorization, are actually more kid-friendly than traditional math instruction.

Still not convinced? Here, two educators share their views on why Common Core math is good for kids, and how you can make the transition to Common Core math easier for you and your students.

Common Core math emphasizes mastery of essential concepts

Previously, teachers complained that older math standards were a mile wide and an inch deep. The need to cover massive amounts of material in a short period of time meant that educators glossed over concepts.

Not so with Common Core math. “The game has changed,” says Barry Saide, a fifth-grade teacher and ASCD 2014 Emerging Leader. “Now, the emphasis is on teaching to mastery.”

Barry Saide
Barry Saide

In practice, this new emphasis means that teachers have fewer concepts to teach — and more time to teach them — in any given school year. In fourth grade, for instance, the only geometry-related math standard students have to master is “Draw and identify lines and angles, and classify shapes by properties of their lines and angles.Teachers and students can spend the entire year exploring those concepts, instead of rushing through lines and angles on the way to coordinates and graphs. (Students, of course, will also spend time adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing and learning about fractions and measurement.)

Diving deeply into concepts won’t come easily or naturally to teachers (and students) used to skimming the surface. Saide says teachers need to have patience and emphasize learning over grades.

“Deep understanding of material does not happen overnight, and grades are not always indicative of understanding,” Saide says. “A grade is simply indicative of where a student is in the learning process. So we need to be willing to set aside those letters and percentages and focus on what truly matters, which is learning.”

Of course, most schools still require teachers to issue grades to students, and most parents still believe that an A is better than a C, even if the C is earned though effort and improvement and the A is achieved with no effort or real learning. It’s up to teachers to help parents understand the learning process and value of struggle and perseverance in learning.

Common Core math is open to alternate methods of problem solving

Remember when you were a kid? Remember being frustrated by math teachers who insisted you “show your work,” even though you knew, instinctively and automatically, what the answer was? Ever lose points on a math problem because your way of solving it was not the same as the teacher’s preferred method?

For years, American students have been taught to solve math problems with algorithms, without really understanding how or why the algorithm works. That approach works for some students, but not for all students. Common Core math pulls back the curtain, so to speak, by showing students multiple ways of arriving at an answer.

“Now, it’s ‘let’s teach it a number of different ways so students can find a strategy that makes sense to them,’” Saide says.

Cray Francis
Cray Francis

Showing students different approaches to problem solving also helps them understand why math equations work, and equips them to use those approaches in real-life settings.

Today, it’s not uncommon to “see kids who are not able to apply their knowledge in various situations,” says education consultant Cray Francis. “If you ask a kid who has learned area and perimeter in school, ‘how much carpet do I need to carpet a room in my house that is nine feet by ten feet,’ you’d be surprised by how many kids can’t figure that question out,” says Francis, a former dean of instruction in New York City public and charter schools. “Teaching students alternate strategies gives them the ability to take math and apply it to every day, real life situations.”

Common Core math offers opportunities for differentiation

Because Common Core math is open to alternative approaches, the one-size-fits-all approach to mathematics instruction is, by definition, a thing of the past.

“If anything, Common Core has embedded differentiation of instruction, because the expectation is that you’re going to find out what your learners need and then meet them at that level,” Saide says.

Simply handing out different versions of the same worksheet will no longer work as a differentiation technique. Instead, teachers will be challenged to “truly tailor instruction to what students know, what they do not know, what makes sense and what doesn’t,” Saide says. “Teachers will need to tweak their teaching to make sure they’re giving students what they need to be successful.”

It’s not easy to provide individualized instruction in a classroom full of kids, especially when teachers are used to teaching the group as a whole.

“This is a really heavy shift,” Saide says. Teachers who haven’t had much education or experience in differentiation strategies may need to seek professional development to beef up their skills.

Common Core math invites subject integration

Common Core math emphasizes real-world applications, so it easily and naturally leads to subject integration. Math concepts can (and should) be explored in science, social studies, language and other classes.

If you’re used to thinking of math as something to be taught during math class, by a math teacher, this shift toward integration can be disconcerting. “So often, I hear teachers say, ‘I teach social studies’ or ‘I teach science,’” Saide says. “But we teach kids. We just happen to use science or social studies as the driver to reach the kids we have in class.”

Keeping the focus on kids and learning — instead of narrowly focusing on subject matter — can ease the transition to the more holistic approach Common Core takes to math. You can do your part by emphasizing the role and utility of math in other classes, by assigning projects that cross subject boundaries and by collaborating with teachers in other disciplines.

You can also move math instruction outside the classroom. “Common Core allows us to bring in sources other than a textbook. It’s forcing us to go out into the world,” Francis says. “So a math teacher may take kids to a museum that deals with aeronautics, so kids can see how what they’re learning is going to apply later on.”

Too often, that kind of real-world integration has been lacking in mathematics instruction. “Many times, as educators, we don’t make connections for children. We don’t say, ’you learn this math now, here’s what you can do with it later,’” Francis says.

Transitioning to a new way of teaching and learning can be uncomfortable. It will take teachers, students, parents and community members time to adjust to a new style of instruction. And that’s OK. Recent research suggests that the inherent struggle is an essential — and valuable — part of the learning process.

“I help parents understand that struggling during learning is actually good. It’s an opportunity to teach them to be independent, to give their best effort and to talk about how they can grow from that,” Saide says. “Not only will students learn math, but they’ll learn that they can struggle and it’s not the end of the world.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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