Fixing Psychology

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Parents Can't Understand Kindergarten Math

The dark side of Common Core

Alright, I'll admit it off the bat, sometimes I have trouble figuring out what my daughter (first grade) is supposed to do in her Common Core homework. However, my first assumption is usually that there is something sensible she is being asked to do, and based on that assumption, I can usually figure it out. The difficulty has never been that I can't do the problems, the difficulty is realizing what they are trying to teach during a particular lesson. Typically the hardest things for me to figure out are the lessons that will help my daughter the most in the long run. There have been a string of well-publicized complaints about common core lessons, and the most recent one is a perfect example of this. Covered on many news outlets, a parent with a Ph.D. has claimed he is unable to figure out his kindergardener's math homework.

A park scene, with objects like flowers and trees divided into two groups.
Math homework a Ph.D. couldn't figure out.

Let's break down the story:

  • First, there are instructions on the sheet stating that the child has done these problems in class that very day. When I get these, instead of "trying to figure it out" I usually say to my daughter "You did these in class today, can you show me?" If my daughter can't show me what she did in class, we need to work on that skill first.
  • Second, what teacher wouldn't explain this if asked?
  • Third, there is usually a logical order to the homeworks across weeks and months, so if you know what your child has been doing for the past few days, you can usually see a trajectory and figure out what they need to do.
  • Fourth, the child is being asked to tell math stories, which is awesome. How many people in middle school and high school say that their biggest problem with math is the word problems. Your child is being asked to generate word problems, in kindergarten! Not only is that priming their creativity, but it is countering that sense of mysterious word-problem difficulty before it even begins.
  • Fifth, the picture is pretty obviously set up for math problems. Though admittedly, it is better set up for addition than subtraction, it shouldn't be to hard to figure out. Pretty much every type of object is divided up into two groups. I can fully understand if the assignment strikes you as lame or silly, but it is certainly not impossible to figure out. It is the kindergarten version of a quite sophisticated skill—translating real-world encounters into math problems. 
  • Finally, why are parents complaining that their children are doing sophisticated homework at a young age instead of being plesantly surprised?

But this isn't the only high profile complaint about Common Core math. The story from the Yahoo! ticker listed eight other stories with complaints. Some of them seem to entail legitimate complaints that a simple process is being explained in a confusing manner. However, proponents of common core are usually quick to point out that the seemingly confusing method is one of the many ways children are being offered to think about a problem, and those ways can make a lot of sense if you just use a different example.

I don't particluarly like Common Core, but I think if we are going to criticize it we need accurate points. Personally, I am suspicious of trying to make any school curriculum the same accross the entire country, because I believe our country is made better by having people who learned the same things in different ways and by people who learned different things. I also really do not like it when a public school curriculum is dictated by major publishers, which is one effect of trying to roll out a nation-wide product. The corporatization of education is now a problem for schools at all levels. And let's not get started on the way the program judges school and teacher success! But most of the complaints on the web are not about such systemic points. Most complaints are from parents who seem to think their kids should learn things exactly the same way they remember learning things 30 or 40 years ago. That is absurd. Even ignoring how horrible most people are at remembering what they did or didn't learn in kindergarten: Teaching methods should change over time, and your children should learn different skills than you learned at the same age. Personally, I look forward to the day I can't help my daughter with her math homework.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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