Conversations I’ve Heard Enough Of, Dept.

The Kansas City Star published a column in defense of Common Core’s math standards, containing the usual rhetoric–to wit:

I was recently part of a conversation about education. It was a social media conversation, intended to bash the alternative strategies of teaching math.

The strategies have been caught up in the term “common core,” but are actually teaching methods designed to help kids reach common standards.

I offered an alternative viewpoint to the woman’s outrage. I was once told by the faculty at my kids’ school that these learning strategies aren’t designed just to teach the material, they teach the kids to learn. How to analyze. How to understand why math works, not just how to solve a problem.

My positive input was unwelcome in the echo chamber this “new math” naysayer had created, and she formally dismissed me from the conversation. She wanted solidarity in her outrage, not to see the information in a new light, from a different angle. She did not want to acknowledge the benefits. She did not want to learn synonyms for her limited math vocabulary.

Interestingly, the writer feels that she is on the outside looking in, that her views on math education hold validity, while the “conversation” about Common Core math is dominated by the unenlightened. (I put “conversation” in quotes because it has become one of those trendy words like “relationship”, “narrative”, and “nuance”;I would be all too happy to see journalists given jail time for using it.)

The points she makes are easily dismissed. Some might think I’m wasting my time dismissing them and I would tend to agree but for one thing.  She isn’t the only one who thinks this way, and I have met many in education who espouse such views.  And in particular, such views are not only espoused but taught in schools of education to future teachers who then embrace and implement such thinking.

First off, she bolsters her thesis with the tired old arguments that the future may require knowledge that isn’t being taught–which is analogous to the bromide that the future consists of jobs that haven’t yet been created. Those who make such argument posit that basic knowledge is apparently useless in the face of what we will be required to know in the future–and if you need to know something, just Google it.  To wit, again:

What’s imperative is that future generations must be adaptable. What they learn today may or may not (leaning heavily toward the may not end) apply. … We were raised by people who cling to The Correct Way of solving an addition problem. History matches the books supplied by our schools. Spelling must be memorized and written out in cursive. And now we raise our kids in a technology-rich environment that changes on the fly. Kids don’t need to solidify a bunch of facts in their minds spanning myriad topics — in case they need that information in the future. They merely need to learn how to learn and leverage the tools they have. A generalist who knows how to find specific information will be as effective as a specialist with a narrow body of knowledge.

Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, wrote a book called “Learning how to Learn”  in which she describes techniques one can use to succeed in difficult subjects. She does not hold memorization in disdain, nor learning facts, nor practice. Recently she wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times about the value of practice and memorization in becoming proficient in math–and was castigated in comments that followed as well as in blogs for what was characterized as narrow-mindedness and resistance to innovation in education. The criticisms bore a resemblance to the Kansas City Star columnist’s view of having to deal with the great unwashed.

The Star’s column is typical of the “conversation” about math education in the US. As such, it is nonsense. One doesn’t learn to think critically, or to be creative, without some basic knowledge. And that basic knowledge isn’t something that is dug up on a just-in-time basis. Knowledge is the basic tool with which to think critically; without it, you have nothing to think critically about. Learning how to learn requires some amount of memorization–and memorization allows one to reason with that information. It is not “rote learning” as traditional education is frequently mischaracterized.

As far as Common Core is concerned, one can interpret the standards in various ways, but the prevailing interpretation seems to be dominated by those who believe as the columnist does that students must “understand” math — otherwise they are “math zombies” who “do math” but do not “know math”.

My comments on math education in general and Common Core in particular can be found here: . If you don’t wish to suffer through a half hour of someone whose belief system may be opposed to yoursyou might want to skip to minute 19:24 where I talk about Common Core. I can assure you, however, that if you don’t agree with my views, you won’t like my comments about Common Core either.


2 thoughts on “Conversations I’ve Heard Enough Of, Dept.

  1. “They merely need to learn how to learn and leverage the tools they have.”
    “I recently faced a new software implementation at work.”
    “But nobody knows how to use this,” one person said. It was a practical example: not everyone knows how to learn.”

    In math, learning how to learn is created by doing years of individual homework assignments successfully – i.e. practice. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s no substitute for the skills learned when you have to sit there and put complex pieces of knowledge together. It might help for things that are one level above your knowledge and skill base, but that’s it. No one math video will help you solve complex problems far above your ability level. If you found a curriculum of math videos, that might work, but you still have to do more than watch and listen. You have to practice. Hard work.

    Their learning how to learn is not the same thing. It misses the hard individual work. It’s based on engagement and creativity. Those are nice, but superficial, and do not replace the hard work skills obtained by doing p-sets. Of course, all of their silliness disappears in traditional AP/IB curricula in high school.

    Once again we have a columnist (with a degree in Spanish/English) feeling confident enough to espouse on a subject outside of his/her knowledge base.


  2. One of the main goals, in any domain of learning, is to develop the ability to see patterns. Internalizing the important facts and processes of a realm of knowledge is VERY helpful in honing this ability. In a non-math domain, say foreign language, it’s just as obvious as it is in math. It’s true that memorizing numerous verb conjugations is not critical thinking, but it does lead to an almost instinctive grasp on how those verbs (and verbs of different types) operate within a language. Which makes it possible to absorb new verbs quickly, and intuit how they should be used.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s