The Washington Post had a feature story about the difficulties parents are having in helping their children with their homework, thanks to the new approach to math required by the Common Core educational reforms. Instead of teaching children to learn to calculate by applying math facts like the multiplication table, the new curriculum rejects memorizatio and nmakes children solve math problems by making charts and diagrams.
The story, worth reading in its entirety, includes a funny story of a frustrated parent by way of Stephen Colbert. Read it after the jump, along with my thoughts on the matter.
In April, comedian Stephen Colbert ripped into an example of a math problem that had lit up the Web after it was posted on Facebook by a frustrated North Carolina father. The homework problem showed a horizontal number line with a series of half domes scribbled on top and said “Jack used a number line below to solve 427-316. Find his error. Then write a letter to Jack explaining what he did right and what he should do to fix his mistake.”
“That’s a great question. It teaches two important workplace skills: math and passive- aggressive note-writing,” Colbert quipped. “That word problem couldn’t be easier to solve. All you have to do is check the semi-circles on the two-sided arrow, put the numbers up in it and bing, bang, math. It’s the same thing I do when I get a check in a restaurant. Draw a bunch of shapes and tell the waitress to find my error.”The parent who posted the math problem, Jeff Severt, wrote the note required by the problem: “Dear Jack, Don’t feel bad. I have a bachelor of science degree in engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other higher math applications. Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the correct answer. In the real world, simplification is favored over complication.”
Then, he solved the problem using simple subtraction, which he said took less than five seconds, to come up with the answer: 111.
Yes, it’s important to teach the concepts behind math and why it is the way it is. But that requires a very high order of thinking and understanding. For young children, kids having difficulty in school, and beginners in general, the conceptual approach just makes it harder. Teach the rudiments of math and then later, when the student is ready for it, teach the concepts behind it.
And there is nothing wrong with memorizing things! I point you to the stages of classical education: grammar (for young children: learning the basics by employing the memory); logic (for middle schoolers, who can then cultivate understanding by building on the basics); and rhetoric (for high schoolers, who are developmentally ready to creatively express and apply what they have learned and understood).