Old Legends Never Die, Dept.

I had read that USC has an interactive guide to Common Core, so I decided to look at it. It does a nice job describing what CC is about, and its history. And of course it includes the “shifts” in math instruction. These are the same shifts described at the CC website, except that they take the three shifts so described and split them up into six. In either case, they still bother me.

What’s bothersome about them is the inherent assumption that all math that came before CC was faulty. And while there may be some truth to that as far as the progressivist ideology that has been permeating the lower grades for the past 25+ years, that is not where their subtle criticism lies. The shift in “Focus” for example states:

More time is to be devoted to important concepts. Rather than covering many topics quickly, the standards stress the need to deepen instruction around pivotal ideas.”

And part and parcel to this, there is also this particular side-bar which appears in the interactive guide to CC:

“The majority of today’s parents learned math by memorizing algorithms, so learning about conceptual-based number sense may be a difficult transition.”

As I’ve shown in articles about textbooks from the era that supposedly “failed thousands of students in math”, the reformers of those eras (which included the notable William A. Brownell who is still revered by organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and by present-day reformers) explained the concepts underlying various mathematical procedures clearly. It was not always and universally true that students were simply shown the algorithm with no context or conceptual explanation.

A retired school teacher from Ontario wrote to me recently stating:

“I was always given thorough explanations throughout my schooling, though they may well have missed the explanation re division of fractions. Yet, that is the example that is always pulled out. Unfortunately,all the other explanations that have always been routinely given are forgotten and the extremely good math instruction that has taken place is dismissed. And all this was done with much less money and much less fuss. And thank God, I now understand division of fractions. Having understanding come at a somewhat later date is not an inferior type of learning. Probably part of normal human development.”

Nevertheless, the legends continue and the new methods of teaching (alternative methods first, and algorithms last, to ensure deep understanding lest the use of the algorithm eclipses and precludes it) continue on, unabated by complaints of parents and/or teachers brave enough to speak out.


6 thoughts on “Old Legends Never Die, Dept.

  1. Barry, I think the points you make here ring true for so many. I would hazard a guess that the majority of parents have forgotten the many explanations that they were given and simply recall the ‘end product’ , the rules. For the average parent this is fine. I was given explanations during chemistry, typing class, CPR training and first year Italian, but cannot necessarily recall all explanations/concepts today.It is the basic rules that remain with me.
    I watched unprecedented millions being spent on elementary math in Ontario and at the same time observed its complete collapse. The assumptions and comments made about past math education are too often simplistic,naive and ideological.And it is this shaky starting point and these flawed assumptions that have led to such a severely damaged math education for today’s students and their families.


  2. Well, after reviewing old textbooks in our university’s archives for 2 days last month, I can support claims both by Garelick and his Ontario friend that indeed, old textbooks were much more straightforward, and provided a great deal of guidance and understanding throughout. Not only that, lessons were laid out in a much more organized manner, thought and care was taken to ensure arithmetic procedures were learned properly, and they were also much more compact, and easier to handle, than today’s cumbersome, chaotic textbooks that students are now subjected to.

    However the even scarier version to consider, are Ministry’s aim to eradicate textbooks altogether. They are leaving the resources up to the teachers, opting to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend PD workshops, rather than invest in sound, quality textbooks for the class. So now we have teachers attending sold out conferences to watch THIS guy, http://www.abbynews.com/news/411010275.html
    (1300 were in attendance, mostly ALL teachers, costing $25/ticket. Was advertised on ministry websites), eliminating the requirement for textbooks altogether, and creating THE new standard of math education.


  3. As an interested parent, I am always curious about something. When parents bring up the issue of their kids lacking the basics of arithmetic and the need for tutoring, they are often ignored because their stories are anecdotal. Aren’t the memories that parents have about their own math education,10 -30+ years, ago also anecdotal? I don’t understand why faded memories are believed and present-day ‘anecdotes’ ignored? Could someone explain! Anyone!


  4. I would be interested in some comments on a point that has always slightly perturbed me. It is quite routine for the present day concerns of parents re the math education of their children to be dismissed as anecdotal. This is quite alarming as parents are spending huge amounts of money on private tutoring. Aren’t the faded memories of parents, 10 to 30 plus years in the past, also anecdotal. I don’t understand why the faded memories are given such credibility and the present day realities are considered ‘anecdotal’.
    I’d love to hear some explanations.


    • Excellent point. And for anyone commenting on the above, perhaps you could also comment on this observation from Vern Williams, middle school math teacher who was on the National Math Advisory Panel in 2007:

      “I have always stated that if a reform minded teacher produces competent, intellectually passionate students, they will absolutely escape any criticism on my part. But the opposite seems never to occur. Regardless of stellar results, the traditional teacher will always be criticized for being a self centered sage on the stage, controlling student learning and running a draconian classroom. Their students may be the happiest most accomplished students of all time but the teacher will never be good and pure until they cross over to the reform side.”


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