Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Time to Bury Common Core Math

In America we call it Common Core. In Canada they have been calling it discovery-based learning.

As applied to teaching mathematics, these new approaches reject rote learning in favor of more complex and often confusing ways of solving problems.

In America the new method was concocted by experts and funded by the Gates foundation.

What could go wrong?

Apparently, lots can and has gone wrong. I have already posted about the views of retired Berkeley math professor Marina Ratner. She was very pessimistic about the new way of teaching math.

Now, Canadian researchers have discovered the rote learning is much better for a child’s development. Memorizing the multiplication tables helps you to move on more effectively to more complex mathematical problems.

In effect, as young math students memorize the basics, their brains reorganize to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math. It is a gradual process, like “overlapping waves,” the researchers write, but it clearly shows that, for the growing child’s brain, rote memorization is a key step along the way to efficient mathematical reasoning.

By tracking a group of young students over the course of a year, the authors show “that children learn to associate individual problems with the correct answers. Repeated problem solving during the early stages of arithmetic skill development also contributes to memory re-encoding and consolidation, thus resulting in enhanced hippocampal activity and ability to recall basic arithmetic facts… The maturation of problem-solving skills is characterized by a gradual decrease in the use of inefficient procedures such as counting and an increase in the use of memory-based strategies.”

As a scientific justification of rote learning, the study seems likely to further polarize the controversy over math teaching styles, in which arithmetical fundamentalists are squared off against the popular and progressive forces of “discovery-based” learning, in which students are encouraged to find their own ways to the right answer.

And also:

One critic of the government’s adoption of “discovery-based learning,” Ken Porteous, a retired engineering professor, put it bluntly: “There is nothing to discover. The tried and true methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division work just fine as they have for centuries. There is no benefit and in fact a huge downside to students being asked to discover other methods of performing these operations and picking the one which they like. This just leads to confusion which ultimately translates into frustration, a strong dislike for mathematics and a desire to drop out of any form of mathematics course at the earliest opportunity.”


Anonymous said...

This is true, and only someone like Bill Gates -- who said time and again that he just needed to surround himself with the smartest people, and he would succeed -- could believe it. And he still believes it. Yet complex math is, well, complex. That's why it's called "complex math." When you think of yourself as a gifted savant, you'll continue to believe it. That's what Gates, along with his Foundation, surrogates and minions, are advocating.

This is similar what happened to reading and language when the smart people in American education went headlong into the quasi-religious belief in "whole language" as the basis of learning how to read. After long-term success using phonics, the progressive educrats came up with whole language as a better way. Whole language is a complex approach to literacy. It is the combination of research from disparate fields of study in child learning, emphasizing meaning and strategy instruction. Sound familiar to the philosophy behind Common Core math? It led to the "Reading Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s, with plenty of collateral damage in its wake. It failed under the weight of totalitarian, bureaucratized ideology, leaving two generations of child literacy in its wake. When you want to talk about professional groupthink in the face of devastating failure (and convincing yourself it's best to continue), look no further than whole language instruction.

The thing I am most disappointed about is that Michelle Rhee is caught up in this Common Core mess, acting as an advocate for all the wonders the program has in store for all of us. It's enough to make you cynical about think tanks, foundations, and non-profit "thought leaders." There's something amazing about what the New York City public schools achieved in the first half of the 20th century. We would be wise to look to their philosophy, methods and standards, and do so quickly, before we lose yet another generation to educrats and further reckless academic experimentation.


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