Friday, March 28, 2014

Guest Post: John Spencer Addresses "Frustrated Parent"

John's was the first post I saw about the silly complaint going around from "Frustrated Parent". (Now I've seen about three more. They all have good things to say.) John has graciously allowed me to share his whole post here. (But the comments over at his place are an interesting mix, so go on over there too.) Here's John:

There are many things I hate about the Common Core standards. I hate the way teachers were pushed out of the creation and adoption phase and how we have little voice in the implementation. I hate the fact that the standards will continue to be assessed with standardized, multiple choice tests and that these scores will be used with Value Added Measures in both teacher salary and teacher evaluation. However, I think it's important that in our criticism of bad policy we are careful to avoid blasting good pedagogy.

I'm seeing many of these posts making their rounds on Facebook.

I'm seeing statements like, "What the hell is a number line and why do kids need it?" Or, "just teach them the basics." The notion of using a manipulative, playing with numbers, breaking them them apart and comparing processes is somehow viewed as non-mathematical.

The truth is that number lines are powerful tools for understanding integers. True, when subtraction is something simple that requires no "borrowing" it feels like a joke. However, the goal is to build up number sense. It's to help them understand math conceptually. If you flip the numbers and end with a negative number as an answer, suddenly a number line helps make the negative-positive relationship more powerful.

This parent's snarky answer about "the process used would get you terminated" is based on a faulty assumption that a first grader needs the same approach as an engineer. And yet . . . this "new math" approach that people mock is something we use constantly in real-world, mental math.

Consider it this way: You have fifty-three dollars and you need to give someone twenty-seven dollars. What are you going to do to figure it out? If you find yourself breaking by tens and going backward, chances are you are using a mental number line.

Oh, you could pull out a piece of paper and do that math that way, but chances is are that as an engineer, you'd be fired . . . or at least laughed at.

I remember someone posting an angry rant about doing multiplication by breaking it up into different pieces. "Just teach the algorithm!" the parent posted.

I posted a response. "If the bill is 27.42 and you want to leave a twenty percent tip, what's the answer? How did you find it?"

Some people divided by five. Others multiplied by .2. Still others moved one decimal over and doubled it. Some rounded up to thirty. In other words, there were multiple processes that worked and each of them involved understanding the properties of numbers. In other words, most people used a process mentally that they were openly mocking on Facebook.

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Oddly enough, many of these same people who are mocking "new math" in their posts are also lamenting the fact that Singapore is kicking our butts in math. What they fail to realize is that the places where math is working are the places where they are building number sense.

I've seen what happens when students lack number sense. They learn a lockstep process and think that math is the same as baking a cake. They follow the recipe without understanding why they are doing what they are doing. However, when they get into something as simple as linear equations, they struggle to know what to "do first," when there are often two or three options.

When students lack number sense and they get the wrong answer, they fail to understand why an answer is illogical. You end up with a student who misplaces a decimal number and never finds his or her mistake. Asking students to think conceptually and engage in diagnostic problem-solving isn't superfluous. It's actually part of "the basics."

I know that the "new" math looks different, but instead of criticizing it for being hard or being complicated, try thinking about the theories behind it. There's a reason we're using manipulatives, breaking things apart, using number lines and comparing processes. This is how math works.

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