Misunderstanding the Common Core Part IX

Posted: February 6, 2015 in Math Concepts, Teaching and Learning Philosophy
Tags: , ,

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

-Thomas Edison

I don’t know exactly what Edison meant by this or how he determined the percentages, but the message, to me, is this: thinking is not what people do well!

On a recent Sunday news show, Texas governor Greg Abbott claims that the Common Core State Standards are bad because “it takes a teacher more than a minute to teach a student how to learn that 9+6=15”. He is referencing this video. Check it out.

Let’s think about this. How is this an argument against Common Core?

Is teaching a student how to think about 9+6 = 15 a bad thing? There is a difference between just doing 9+6 and thinking about 9+6. The Common Core Standards clearly have an emphasis on procedural fluency. Students should be able to determine that 9+6=15 quickly. But, how will such fluency happen? It will happen when students have a way of thinking about 9+6. Because it takes a minute to explain this thinking does not mean that it will take a student a minute to compute! Furthermore, the expectation is to push mental math…a good thing! For a student to flexibly be able to see 9+6 as equivalent to 10+5 is very good!

Governor Abbott does not have the opportunity to explain how he believes students should be taught that 9+6=15, but I will make a conjecture that he will argue that students should just memorize it. And in saying this, what would he mean by “just memorize it”? Perhaps something like this (and I embellish):

Teacher: “OK Johnny, this shape right here (9) is called the number 9 and this shape right here (6) which kind of looks like an upside-down 9 is called the number 6. And when you put this symbol in between this (9) and this (6) the answer is two shapes…a 1 which sits right next to a 5. So 9 + 6 = 15”
Johnny: “But why?”
Teacher: “Don’t ask why…just memorize it. Let me get the flashcards.”

We might as well do something like this:

Teacher: “OK Johnny, let me tell you something that I want you to memorize. If you take purple and add dog the answer is banana.
Johnny: “But why?”
Teacher: “Don’t ask why…just memorize it. Let me get the flashcards.”

The teacher in the video is just unpacking the mathematical thinking necessary for a student to make sense of what 9+6=15 means and how this fact might be memorized in a meaningful way. Certainly, we expect students to be able to respond to 9+6 in just a few seconds. This memorized fact will be retained when the mathematical reasoning and thinking, done by the student, allows the student to make meaning and make sense of the computation.

And by the way…this kind of thinking, to allow students to memorize basic math facts, has been around long before the Common Core Standards! This is not a Common Core thing…this is just good teaching.

Diane Briars, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says this about the issue: “Teachers have used techniques like splitting a number into parts of 10 for addition–rather than straight memorization–since the 1950s at least, and the research showing its benefits goes back to the 1920s. It has long been best practice for early childhood math.”

I encourage everyone…please read the Common Core Standards and understand their purpose. Then, if you want to debate the issue of the federal government offering federal money tied to the implementation of these standards, great! If you want to debate standardized testing, its cost, its taking instructional time, its impact on the mental health of students, teachers, and parents, great! But please…do not conflate these issues. Standards are standards…teaching is teaching…curriculum is curriculum…testing is testing. My experience is, when people actually consider the Standards, the issue is not the Standards! When they see that students are expected to become effective problem solvers, mathematical thinkers, and fluent in computations, most agree that the Standards are not a problem.

When people try to show that the Standards (not the role of the feds, not standardized testing, etc.) are bad, it is clear that they are not really thinking…



  1. abellwordpress says:

    There’s nothing wrong with explaining why 9 + 6 = 15 (really, that’s just definition — haven’t watched the video), but the problem is that some schools have decided that memorizing basic facts isn’t important. It is. If you can’t apply those facts quickly and WITHOUT thinking about them, you can’t do computation (or even some analysis) of harder problems in an efficient way.

    I assume that you aren’t against fact memorization, but you must understand that many schools aren’t with you on this. The principal at our local elementary has scolded teachers for drilling students in fact memorization.

    • getrealmath says:

      I agree with you and you are correct that I am not against fact memorization. My point is, however, that memorization comes along with meaning.

      Also, while I agree that not all districts, schools, principals, teachers interpret the Standards correctly, that does not mean the the Standards are bad! The discussion is about the Standards themselves and whether the Standards are good or bad. In my opinion, the Standards are pretty darn good…now, we need to help districts, schools, principals, teachers, parents, students, politicians, future teachers, all stakeholders, understand the Standards. The first thing folks can do is to actually read the Standards and not to form their opinion based on what they heard on the radio or on TV!

  2. jg11 says:

    Yes! Love this, thank you. I feel like an odd woman out when I say I love how math is taught to align with common core standards (I have two kids in school – kindergarten and 2nd). Sure it looked “different” at first, but after going through their steps I realized it’s exactly how I think about numbers and math. And my kids are both doing great with math so far and aren’t scared or crying as I’ve heard they are supposed to be. This is the best explanation yet as to why this way of learning works.

    • getrealmath says:

      Thanks! I have found that when most people take the time to understand the common core math standards, there just isn’t much to dislike! Thinking, reasoning, problem solving, etc. are all important things for our students!

      Thanks for sharing!


  3. StudentOfAdamson says:

    Do you like the “anchor” method that was used as demonstration in the video?

    • getrealmath says:

      I think the “anchor” method is helpful for doing mental math…which I think we should help students to develop. How do we think about 8 + 5? Well, we could think “let’s add 2 to 8 to make ten…then we would have to take 2 away from 5 to make 3…so 8+5 is equivalent to 10+3” and 10+3 can be done in the head. The idea is that the more students make sense of numbers this way, develop a number sense, the more efficient and proficient they become a the mental math. What I just typed would happen in a student’s brain very quickly and they would make sense of and ultimately memorize (meaningfully) that 8+5=13.

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