In recent months, there’s been a tremendous amount of buzz regarding an educational change called Common Core. And a ton of that buzz perpetuates down-right false information. There’s so much to say about this that I’ve developed a five-part series debunking these myths — or outright lies, if you’re being cynical. This is the second in that series (read the first here), which will continue on Wednesdays throughout August and into September. Of course, I’ll be writing from a math perspective. Photo Credit: Watt_Dabney via Compfight cc

Myth #2: The Standards Omit Basic Math Facts

While grabbing a latte at the local Starbucks a few weeks ago, I ran into a friend of mine. She was taking a break from teaching cursive to high school students at a nearby private school’s summer program.

“Kids don’t learn cursive in elementary school anymore, and so they can’t sign their names,” she explained. “Kids aren’t even required to learn their multiplication tables these days!” 

Well, I know for a fact that multiplication facts are covered in math classes across the country, including those in our fair city. But there’s this idea out there that third-graders are using calculators to find 8 x 2. While I don’t doubt that this has happened on at least one occasion, it’s not a trend in education. And math facts are a part of the Common Core.

The Common Core Standards emphasize critical thinking. And without a foundation in basic facts, students will not be able to apply critical thinking skills to problem solving of any kind.

Sure, there is no Common Core Standard that says students must be able to recite the multiplication tables 1 through 12 by heart. Instead, Common Core focuses on the concept of multiplication — which is pretty darned complex — encouraging teachers to illustrate multiplication with arrays (the picture below is an array), equal-sized groups, and area. The difference boils down to this: We grownups probably memorized that 8 x 2 = 16, while today’s students might figure it out on their own with a drawing like this:

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The array above gives context to multiplication. Students can see for themselves that there are two rows of eight dots and 16 dots in all. The simple illustration even offers students a way to discover (or remember) the math fact themselves before memorization naturally occurs. In short, it’s much more meaningful than flash cards.

And while the example above is very visual, the idea behind it is flexible, allowing students with different learning styles to understand multiplication. A more kinetic (tactile) student can arrange 16 pennies in an array. A student with an aural learning style can count the dots out loud — in rows, in columns and in total. And so on.

There are plenty of other math facts included in the Common Core Standards, from the properties of number systems to formulas for area and volume. But I admit, you won’t find anything like, “Students will recite the value of π to the ninth decimal place.”

And this is a great change from more traditional approaches. Because, nothing sucks the life out of learning like memorization. Besides, can you remember the formula for the surface area of a cube? If not, could you figure it out or find it online? In my opinion, we want students to kick ass in the figuring-out option — to know that a cube has six sides that are exactly alike, and that surface area is figured when you add the area of each of the sides. Knowing those little details means that a formula isn’t necessary.

So yeah, Common Core hasn’t eliminated math facts. They’re just not front and center, leaving much more room for critical thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Got a question about the Common Core Standards for Mathematics? Please ask! Disagree with my assessment above? Share it! And if you missed Myth #1, you can find it here.

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