Is it wrong to want to know which way is right?

A second-grade math work sheet. Credit: Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Is it wrong to want to know which way is right? asks Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

In a story on parents’ frustrations with Common Core standards, a mother says her four children, ages 7 to 10, must do math work sheets with pictures, dots and multiple steps.

Her husband, who is a pipe designer for petroleum products at an engineering firm, once had to watch a YouTube video before he could help their fifth-grade son with his division homework.

“They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,” (Rebekah) Nelams said. “But it just looks tedious.”

She plans to homeschool her children in the fall.

The Times “proceeds to regurgitate the Common Core’s tired rationale,” writes Beals.

The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

She’s dubious.

When did math students ever repeat formulas over and over again? And when did students ever not apply concepts to real-life situations? And when did “explain your reasoning,” ubiquitous to American Reform math and rare everywhere else, become the one, one-size-fits all path towards, and the one, one-size-fits measure of, conceptual understanding?

Core math’s call for writing explanations of answers will be hard on students with learning or writing disabilities and those who aren’t fluent in English.

Parents of mathematically gifted students also are complaining, reports the Times. In a New Orleans suburb, Janet Stenstrom says her daughter can’t move forward quickly.

Anna Grace, 9, said she grew frustrated “having to draw all those little tiny dots.”

“Sometimes I had to draw 42 or 32 little dots, sometimes more,” she said, adding that being asked to provide multiple solutions to a problem could be confusing. “I wanted to know which way was right and which way was wrong.”

Some will see Anna Grace “as overly rigid in her mathematical reasoning and problem solving skills,” writes Beals. But “wanting to know which way is right” is a “reasonable desire.”

In Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, also in the New York Times, Elizabeth Green blames faulty implementation by untrained teachers.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

One 1965 Peanuts cartoon depicts the young blond-haired Sally struggling to understand her new-math assignment: “Sets . . . one to one matching . . . equivalent sets . . . sets of one . . . sets of two . . . renaming two. . . .” After persisting for three valiant frames, she throws back her head and bursts into tears: “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?”

“American institutions charged with training teachers in new approaches to math have proved largely unable to do it,” writes Green. A skilled teacher can use “arrays of dots” to explain multiplication, she writes. Or dots can “become just another meaningless exercise” to bore and confuse students.

About Joanne


  1. Explaining math concept(s) using manipulables as part of a lecture and hands-on activity setting up the actual doing of the math makes sense — persisting on the use of manipulables (including dots and lines) doesn’t make sense

  2. First, anyone who thinks that a kid drawing out “10” 23 times, grouping them into hundreds, counting it all up and writing the answer has a better “understanding” of math than the kid who reads the problem and just writes “230” in the answer block has no business teaching or designing curriculum. I wouldn’t trust them to calculate a tip.

    Second, any adult reading question should point out that their answer is true, “unless someone has a disability.” It’s funny how the schools bend over backwards for some types of political correctness and utterly ignore others. I THINK that means they don’t really care about the underlying issues, but only seek to use them whenever it’s to their advantage to do so.

  3. The reason why americans stink at math is due to the fact they never learned how to do math correctly in the first place.

    My answer to how many fingers do 23 students have would be:

    10 fingerx times 23 students equals 230.

    6 cars in the parking lot have 4 wheels apiece, so there are 24 wheels.

    End of statement.

    Though I would have done 10 x 23 = 230
    and 6 x 4 = 24, and probably gotten a(n) F 🙂


  4. Since I started subbing at a local school district, this new math approach is totally incomprehensible. I remember asking a student to solve a particular multiplication problem. I figured out the answer using the correct method. He started with this whole dot circle thing. It took him 15 minutes. At this time I started losing the students. Unfortunately, he never answered the problem. It takes too long for them to solve these types of problems.

    • It takes too long for them to solve these types of problems.

      If the methods used in the instruction are defective, the people who created (or mandated) the instruction should be held liable for malpractice.

  5. foobarista says:

    At the end of the day, the problem is elementary school _teachers_ generally suck at math, so teacher’s colleges have to do anything to make it less like math.

    So, for their most recent trick, they’re trying to change math from calculations into a writing assignment. Response of any kid who actually learns math correctly: ick.

  6. Writing about math isn’t going to help a kid master it, plain and simple.

    You want to master a musical instrument or be a top athlete, you drill and
    practice until it becomes 2nd nature.

    Somewhere along the line, the common core folks seem to have forgotten all of this.

    I suspect the market for math tutors will be expanding in the near future 🙂

  7. The issue is that while manipulatives and concrete examples are helpful in the early stages of learning a concept, it is easy to overdo that stage of learning. The dots problems are a good example of too much. Way too much.

  8. The school will not get away from the use of dots and manipulatives. The included will have no chance of success if these tools are dropped. Maybe by the age of 21 the abacus will, be introduced.

  9. Linda Seebach says: