The Math Problem

Written in response to an article widely circulated on the internet criticizing the Common Core mathematics strategies. <a href=";

It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and hate the Common Core. For some people, it is fun to look at that problem on the internet, showing the “old way” and “new way” of solving 32-12, and chime in with a complaint about the new math and how complicated it is for children, how the old tried-and-true method was working just fine, and maybe even do a little Facebook teacher-bashing. The Common Core may need some reworking. It may be too demanding in terms of language for young children. I found the piece about Common Core on the Colbert Report to be hilarious. The difference between Colbert and the people who wrote the article above is that he is a comedian who brilliantly poked fun at the Common Core, exaggerating the confusion and using children’s own solutions and voices to highlight some of the criticisms in a humorous way.  Colbert’s Common Core Confusion

This article instead used a fabricated example, taken completely out of context, to try to prove the inefficiencies of Common Core math and enrage parents.It showed one of many strategies that are introduced, strategies that include the traditional algorithm as well. Both in the article and in the comments from parents that followed on the internet, all it proved was that we, as a culture, are not in favor of raising children who think creatively about math. Unfortunately, this could be the downfall of our schools rather than the Common Core itself.


Take, for example, the woman who, at the end of the article, says “To me, math is numbers, it’s concrete, it’s black-and-white. I don’t understand why you need to bring this conceptual thing into math.” Perhaps this woman never learned fractions or enrolled in a geometry class. Math is all about concepts. Subtraction, as shown in this problem, is a concept. Some children memorize numbers more easily than others, and make connections between numbers quickly. Understanding concepts helps all children develop a better foundation for how numbers relate to one another. Forcing all different kinds of learners to learn math in the same way left generations of Americans feeling that they were incompetent mathematicians, at least in a classroom setting. Many people claim, with no hesitation at all, “I was never good at math in school.” Not many people say, “I never really understood reading.” The people who make negative comments about the new strategies seem to be arguing that we are a population of people who learned the “old way” and, as a result, are facile with numbers and take pride in our mathematical abilities. If that were the case, more of these people would try to actually figure out what is going on in the “new way” solution rather than just saying, “I don’t get it. It makes no sense.” Making sense of something that, at first glance, you don’t understand, is exactly what teachers hope to enable children to do. If they can do it with confidence, flexibility and creativity, all the better.


One issue that people seem to have with “new math” is that it encourages students to show their work. In the example of the “old way,” the answer is correct, but if it weren’t, I would have no way to see where my student went wrong. I am 37. I was in elementary school in the 80s. Even then, we were told to show our work. It was critical to catching one’s own mistakes in math, even in the early years. In later years, it earned us partial credit on exams and allowed us to learn from our mistakes. Getting the correct answer was valued, but demonstrating logical thinking was even more important. It is the development of underlying concepts that allows children to tackle new mathematical challenges creatively and apply strategies effectively. If students took a class on essay writing and every one of them produced exactly the same essay in the end, parents would be furious and would deem the English teacher a failure. How will they know how to write an essay when the question changes? Where is the individual thinking? Math is no different. A math teacher should aim to develop students who can solve problems in different ways so that when a new, unfamiliar problem comes along, they have tools to solve it. Numbers, like letters, are symbols. Like words, they change when placed in different situations, in relation to other numbers. Math is a language, and as such, the better you understand that language, the better you can manipulate it.


If parents want to help their children become better at math, they will listen to the ways their children think about numbers. Play fun games with them at home, such as Yahtzee or Scrabble. Help them develop their ability to think creatively and apply math strategies to their everyday lives. Most importantly, support the teachers and try to work together. It might feel amusing to poke fun at the teachers, especially after a frustrating homework session, but chances are the teachers are not saying that the homework has to be perfect. If your child is confused, the teacher should know that. Teachers usually want to help children learn. It is one of the few rewards in our profession. Making fun of your child’s teacher, or teachers in general, on the internet doesn’t help anyone, and if it reflects your playground conversations, it may actually confuse your child and send the message that the adults in his or her life don’t respect one another. Try encouraging your children to advocate for themselves and go to their teachers for help. Show them how you learned math and see if it makes sense to them. Maybe their questions will help you build your own understanding. I just taught my mom how to solve this problem using a number line, and she understood it perfectly. Teach your children that we are never too old to learn new strategies. Don’t teach them to get frustrated, give up and then stoop to teasing and complaining.



I had the benefit of learning from some gifted teachers over the years. The teachers who I remember, whose approach to teaching stuck with me over time, are those who created an environment in which skill development and independent ideas could work in concert. They taught me that learning is about the process, not the answer, in every subject. Thank you to Mrs. Ablanalp, Dr. Park, Mrs. Milne, Mrs. Magargee and Mr. Sprague, along with many other teachers in Great Valley School District. Your classes were not the easiest, that’s for sure. They required thought, time, perseverance and a journey outside of my comfort zone in order to accomplish the tasks that you set forth. They also inspired in me a desire and a curiosity that I carry with me. I will never forget that learning process, and I hope that it is one that I instill in my children and my students over the years, no matter their age or abilities.


Next time you see something about “new math” on the internet and it seems easiest to join the crowd and complain, take a minute to think outside the box. Be open-minded and think critically about your own math experience. Consider the highs and the lows, the moments of confusion and clarity. Observe how you solve math problems in your everyday life and engage with your child to learn together. Most importantly, give the teachers a chance to be on your team, and on your child’s team. Collaboration has led to great things over the years, including the internet and Facebook.


6 thoughts on “The Math Problem

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank you for your positive feedback! I think you can follow the blog, or I will link it to Facebook anytime I post something. I have to get on that soon!


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