by Lindalyn Kakadelis
Executive Director, North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools
Over the last few weeks I talked with parents who are ready to pull out their hair trying to help their elementary child with math homework. It all became understandable when I read Mark Rice’s (a college professor and father), experience with his 8-year-old daughter:
My daughter — a bright, fun-loving 8-year-old who isn’t easily rattled — was reduced to tears in school yesterday. Apparently, while working on a math lesson involving fractions, she wasn’t “getting it” the way that she thought she should, and her frustration mounted and her eyes welled up and, later, when her teacher talked to her in the hallway on the way to gym class, she lost it and she cried and cried.
He goes on to explain what caused the frustration in his daughter:
What I mean by math problems unsuited to third-graders are ones that go something like this: Two kids are served brownies. One kid, “Julian,” eats one-half of a small brownie and the other kid, “Debbie,” eats one-eighth of a big brownie. Julian claims that he ate more than Debbie (because one-half is more than one-eighth). The students are asked to explain why Julian’s claim is false, using words and pictures, and then use words and pictures to make that supposedly false statement into a true statement.
How in the world is that problem supposed to help a third-grader learn fractions? Third-graders are concrete thinkers and they are just learning the basics of fractions. Why throw in a poorly-written word problem that asks them to explain an abstract concept such as the idea that one-eighth of a larger whole may be bigger than one-half of a smaller whole? Until they fully understand the basics of halves and eighths — and unless there is a picture showing the relative sizes of each whole — such abstractions only muddy the waters of learning.
Professor Rice talked with his daughter’s teacher and it seems this new method of teaching fractions is the result of states embracing “Common Core.” Remember, North Carolina is a “Common Core” state. If you know of a parent who is experiencing this frustration at home, they need to know it isn’t the fault of the child.
I don’t know how my daughter will do in math today or in the coming weeks. I hope that with her teacher’s guidance, and with the support of her mother and me, she’ll make the adjustments she needs to make in order to regain her confidence in understanding the math concepts that she was already beginning to understand before the new standards and their worksheets came along.
Until then, we’ll just keep reassuring her that the problem isn’t her ability to understand math; the problem is how she’s being asked to understand math. The problem is the experimental “big idea” that she’s unknowingly become part of.