Thursday, September 18, 2014

Training Your Brain

Can we talk about Common Core for a minute? You know, the new standards being rolled out in public schools across the United States? The theory behind them is that they are supposed to help kids develop critical thinking and real-world problem-solving skills.

When I first started reading about Common Core, I thought, “Well, how could that be a bad thing?” and a little later on, “What are people so up in arms about?” and “What is the big deal with Common Core?”

Oh, my friends, now I know.

A quick detour:  my oldest child, Viva, has always been a good student. Her favorite subject is math. She was fortunate to have a 3rd grade teacher who was nuts about math and imparted that enthusiasm to her class. In the 4th grade, Viva was graced with another great teacher – a former engineer – who nurtured that enthusiasm and then “looped” with the class, teaching them 5th grade the following year. He developed units on entrepreneurship and running a business, and created a mock medical school program. He selected Viva as one of a group of students to troubleshoot computer issues for her classmates on their iPads. He got her excited about Science Camp! All of these experiences pretty much solidified Viva’s desire to study engineering and/or computer coding when she attends college in the Great Someday.

Until this week, when she brought home a math test with a score of 83. Now, 83/100 is not a bad score. But it is not the type of grade she usually brings home, and she was upset. And when I began reviewing the test, I started to understand why. In Common Core, when you solve a math problem, you don’t just write down the answer and move on. You write down the answer and you have to explain how you got there. And if you don’t explain it exactly as the teacher wants you to, you don’t get full credit for the right answer. So if a question is worth four points, and you get the problem right but don’t explain it “correctly,” you lose a point. On nearly every question, instead of getting a 4/4, Viva was getting 3’s.

For one question, the teacher took issue with Viva writing that an explanation about the “larger” number as opposed to the “greater” number. Seriously. She took off a point for that. Sweet Dub and I reviewed the entire test with her and came to the following conclusion: you basically just have to learn the game. It sucks, because they are now changing the rules midstream, but it’s a game. And that sucks, because what it bolls down to is, you have to now figure out what the teacher wants to hear. Which isn’t critical thinking at all.

Last night, we were reviewing her math homework, and Viva was now getting stuck. Intimidated by this new challenge. She told me that she was certain now that she was going to get it wrong, no matter what she did.

I won’t lie. My first reaction, because I am from Boston and we are all filled with rage, was to be pissed. I know that middle school is when girls slide away from math. They start to think of it as a “boys” subject. And even when they have a natural talent for it, they stop excelling at it. This is why we have so few women in math and science fields. But then I stopped myself. Because I realize it is something new, and it is hard, and when I asked Viva to explain her rationale for one problem, she did. And she was right, at least from my perspective.

And I think this is good for her. She’s lucky that so far math has come easy to her, but research shows that when you realize that you can build up your abilities through effort you actually learn more.

Today, I read an article which reinforced this for me. It’s called “The Learning Myth:  Why I’llNever Tell My Son He’s Smart.” I particularly liked this:

Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows.

Here’s to growth, and to helping all of us persevere.


Bridget said...

Oh, my. You've described what we have been experiencing as well. I've flat out told my kids, "Write it how the teacher wants to hear it. Even though you know differently, and I'm glad that you know differently, that's what he/she has to go by."

Also, I've found that high school is a strategy. In the scheme of all these things, and with colleges depending on "saying it how they want to hear it," our kids have to figure out the best way to excel in this stupidity.


Lisa Blah Blah said...

I wish I could say I feel better that we are not alone in this. On some level, I suppose it is a life lesson in "gaming the system," although that's not really a lesson I want to teach.

Bridget said...


I can't help but wonder when this Common Core crap will be modified or changed or called something else to calm the angry masses. Ultimately its lacking. How long before the stats are in that we are not meeting the original objectives? My guess is that it most likely it will happen too late for my kids. They'll be out of the system by then.