By Catherine Freeman, mathematics teacher at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor
“Yours is not to question why, just invert and multiply.” Sound familiar? This is how I (and perhaps many of you) learned to divide fractions. You will not hear those words anymore in classrooms that are implementing the Common Core Standards in Math. Instead, you’ll see teachers presenting models, students drawing pictures, and everyone talking a lot about what fraction division means, and interpreting problems in the context of a real world situation–all to create meaning.
As the New York Times has observed, the old system of learning math hasn’t changed in a very long time; it had assumed that our students would continue their math studies in college in order to develop the type of mastery needed for real-life application. But as a teacher, it’s my job to prepare my students with the skills they will need to succeed when they leave my classroom. That means I need to acknowledge the expectations that they will face upon graduation from high school, expectations that are different today than they were when I was in school. I need to teach to new standards in a new way.
In a classroom where the Common Core standards are implemented fully, a lesson does not start with the teacher standing at the board and demonstrating how to solve a problem. You will not see students mimicking the teacher’s steps to solve that problem without an understanding of why they are doing so. In this type of classroom, teachers do not treat their students as sponges, expecting their students to absorb procedures and information passively. Teachers are now facilitators, and students are active learners who are challenged and engaged in the process of making meaning and finding solutions through multiple avenues that make mathematical sense.
With the Common Core Math Standards, it’s not just about the mathematical algorithms or procedures anymore; it’s about seeing the math in common sense terms that will help students build the capacity to engage in deep, permanent learning. This is the ultimate goal of the new standards, and we are understandably still making our way there.
I love teaching, and become animated when the topic turns to issues in education. After 28 years of teaching, I’m more passionate than ever about this. I have been working to learn as much as I can about current issues in education, including the Common Core State Standards. Seeing the changes that have already taken place in my classroom and in math classrooms across my school under Common Core, I am a fervent advocate for these new standards. However, I also understand and appreciate the challenges that teachers and schools face in trying to implement them.
The Common Core is a chance for all students K-12, in every district in every state, to be challenged to learn at the same high levels that they will need to compete in the increasingly complex post-secondary world that awaits them. The move to implement the Common Core will be challenging. Teachers must be prepared to teach math in a way that leads to true mathematical understanding, and students can no longer simply memorize steps to solve a problem without understanding why it works and how to apply it to real-life problems.
I’m excited to share this journey that I am taking with my students with all of you.
In the coming weeks, Cay will be discussing her experiences using Common Core in the classroom. She’ll tell you about how it not only builds content mastery and leads to deeper learning, but it also is designed for continuity between grades in math. She’ll talk about how teachers can use Common Core habits of mind to develop in their students the types of skills that they’ll need to be great at math in any grade. And she’ll lay out lots of helpful supports that teacher and parents can use to understand the new standards and the implications they have for students. According to Cay, this is not “business as usual” – and that’s a good thing! Stay tuned.