Imagine for a moment that you are 8 years old again, and that you are sitting in your second-grade math class. You are learning about decomposing (or borrowing) in subtraction equations, and your teacher shows you this:
Look familiar? You may not have used this algorithm in a while, but you no doubt learned to line up numbers, compare the unit digits, “borrow” from, or “decompose,” the tens digit, and then perform routine subtraction. If you are anything like most students, you just saw this as a ritual with a defined set of rules, and if you followed them carefully you could get an A.
Now, you’re an adult again – but you’re in a bit of a quandary. You have $23 (two $10s and three $1s), but you owe your friend $8 (she has no change). What do you do?
There’s nothing ritualistic about exchanging a $10 bill for ten $1s. There’s nothing confusing about why you’re doing it, either—your motivations are crystal clear. And yet, decomposing the tens digit in the equation above seemed both ritualistic and devoid of motivation.
When we teach students the first way, we’re doing much more harm than is immediately obvious. First, we’re destroying any inherent interest students had in the subject. Having done away with that motivation, we’re free to shove an algorithm in front of them, confident that we have dissipated any original ideas they may have otherwise had about how to explore the problem for themselves. And once they have digested that algorithm, we have whittled down the probability that they will conceptually understand the steps they are performing to nearly nothing.
The stark difference in pedagogical approaches to the above problem underscores why now is such an exciting time in American education: Our schools are changing to emphasize lessons that are about real-world application and deep understanding rather than lessons that are about memorization of equations or of terminology. It’s a change that’s going to happen next year, thanks to a new set of national education standards called the Common Core State Standards.
The fact that these standards are common to most of the country is of particular importance. Since standards by which students were taught used to vary state by state, some states became particularly egregious offenders of teaching algorithms rather than understanding. With the Common Core, students in Nevada (ranked 50th in the nation) are held to the same standards as students in Massachusetts; we are finally doing away with this notion that a child born in Nevada is undeserving of as good an education as one born in Massachusetts.
Making that change won’t be easy on Nevada, however. Suddenly, the fact that students knew how to “decompose” when subtracting isn’t going to be sufficient. They will need to know why they’re performing each of the steps when they use the subtraction algorithm presented above. At first, Nevada test scores will fall, reputations will suffer, parents will get upset, and politicians will point fingers. But ultimately, Nevada students will have a shot at learning math. Not the kind that a calculator can do —algorithmic math—but the kind that involves deep thinking, an understanding of concepts, and the potential for building a deeper understanding upon. This will be of critical importance as those 8-year-olds grow up in a world which has rapidly diminishing use for memorization coupled with a rapidly rising use for understanding of complex ideas. That kind of understanding can’t be memorized, it has to be built on a solid conceptual foundation.
And because of the Common Core, students will have previously unmatched resources to make the leap. Teachers all over the country are sharing secrets and best practices—online teacher communities are flourishing, and teachers in the field are rapidly developing new techniques to figure out what works best to help their kids—all because they’re teaching out of the same curriculum. Now, a teacher who finds a technique that works really well to teach standard 4.NBT.1 (understanding the relationship between hundreds, tens and ones digits) will be able to share that technique far and wide, so no other teacher has to struggle the same way with that standard.
It’s easy to find supporters of this new reality, until it becomes clear how difficult achieving change will be. Changes to the status quo don’t come because the incumbents wholeheartedly embrace them; they come because of the ones brave enough to see that the pains of change will be far outweighed by the benefits.
Big publishers like Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, or McGraw Hill, for example, are already beset with challenges. They are in a world where nepotistic relationships with districts and textbooks published once every seven years are no longer enough. The Common Core is another in a series of blows to their business: the value of their content based on old standards is evaporating overnight. The advantage of being the only game in town when it came to Nevada standards is replaced by nothing but their stunning lack of ability to deliver good material.
Many district administrators are scared too: they fear that all this talk about why the Common Core will lower test scores won’t be a valid excuse when it actually lowers test scores. They can soften that blow by adequately preparing their teachers to teach to the new standards, but that isn’t so easy. It requires doing things that aren’t safe (like not buying poorly crafted material from big publishers), and it requires asking teachers to change when many don’t want to.
It’s understandable why so many forces seem to be colluding to undermine the Common Core. It’s understandable why many try to distort what the standards are really about or focus on the imperfections rather than the holistic attitude towards education the standards bring. But ultimately, none of that changes the fact that the Common Core standards are going to be an invaluable component to make our kids better and more prepared to add value in a world that places a premium on deep understanding, expertise building, and difficult problem solving. The switch to the Common Core is a huge deal—for the first time, American education will make the leap from statically doing what is easy to doing what is right.
If we fail to persevere through dissenting voices with vested interests to create real reform in the curriculum, if we give in to those who call for the delay or dismantling of the Common Core, we will set a terrible precedent—that exceptional change has no place in American education unless it is deemed perfect in the eyes of everyone, unless it is frictionless and easy, and unless it preserves the power and profits of the existing players. Indeed, that would among the worst lessons ever taught in the US education system.