"All that I ever wanted to do is teach students how to think and solve problems mathematically."
Some people support the Common Core Learning Standards, while others absolutely hate them. Like most things that are placed under a political spotlight, we feel forced to take a side and adopt a viewpoint. Our energy is exhausted by arguments and unceasing analysis of conflicting opinions. As a math teacher, I am often asked where my allegiance lies on this subject. Truthfully, I dread being asked my opinion on the Common Core and have become jaded by my efforts to develop an informed and objective opinion.
The result of years of research and political conversations has been a weighty amount of confusion and frustration. All that I ever wanted to do is teach students how to think and solve problems mathematically. When I was a high school student, I held a belief that learning math could be fun--an idea that seemed taboo based on my experiences with traditional math education. With this goal in mind, I chose to become a teacher to see if I could make that idea a reality.
The cool thing about teaching math at the grade school level is that the content is mostly unchanging. A fraction will always be representative of a part and a whole and an equation will always be a tool for finding an unknown variable. The math that students are learning now has been around for a long time. So what is so different today about learning math? The answer is not the content, but the way that we think about and make sense of it.
The U.S. ranks 27th in the world in math achievement. This statistic presents a problem in need of a solution. In response to this challenge, my goal has been to create a learning environment that allows for more than just a handful of students to be successful. With so many research-backed strategies available, my approach to teaching has been experimental. Some activities have gone extremely well, while others went down in flames while I stood before a classroom full of confused students. I have returned to the drawing board countless times, but, looking at the bigger picture, my students have exceedingly benefited from my efforts.
"While I do not know the exact direction the future of mathematics education is going, I know that it can not retreat back towards traditional practices."
I choose to experiment with new strategies because I believe that the traditional ways of teaching math (the classroom experience that most of us had) are ineffective. For example, I resist having my students sit in rows and I do not feel that learning math has to be a solitary experience. By arranging students in cooperative groups, they become more engaged and socially invested. When students are arranged this way, the teacher can easily facilitate small group instruction, encourage mathematical conversation, and formatively assess understanding. This strategy is just one small example of how math education is progressively evolving.
Non-traditional strategies for teaching math often concern parents. There seems to be a dogma, which states that the key to achieving success lies in memorization and repetition. I have taken part in countless conversations debating this old-fashioned viewpoint and supporting math education based on exploration and problem solving. When I start talking with parents about teaching mathematics in a social and engaging way, I can practically feel their skepticism and anxiety. Although I understand the cause for apprehension, especially when parents feel helpless when they can not make sense of their child’s homework, retreating back to traditional ways of teaching math is not in the best interest of students.
Children today are going to face unforeseen challenges of ever-growing complexity. Overcoming these challenges will require creative problem solving and critical thinking skills. If we continue teaching math in the traditional way, then our students may grow to become mathematically disillusioned adults--an image that far too many of us see in the mirror each day. With the future of our children in mind, we have to help them acquire the skills that will allow them to overcome the challenges of their adult lives.
It is hard to say if the Common Core Learning Standards are the solution to the problems plaguing mathematics education. On one hand, I appreciate the idea of having high standards that place a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving skills. On the other hand, I detest standardized exams and the stress they put on everyone involved. The good news is that you can take a stance without taking a political position. My advice to those who want to remove themselves from the politics, and pour their energy into something more productive, is to embrace modern educational practices and let go of old-fashioned ideas concerning what math education is supposed to be. Questioning our approach and asking for change is fine, but a new direction must be a forward one.