Why Common Core math is not as easy as riding a bike
It is quite possible that if the CCSSI had only focused on reading and writing first, the public might not have noticed or cared much about the standards. The lack of good grammatical skills might easily be blamed on modern social media’s casual acceptance of poor grammar or space limitations rather than the fact that it was no longer specifically taught. When an adult used a common quote from classic literature that sailed over a child’s head, it might have been written off by thinking they are reading new classics instead of realizing they were spending way more time reading instructional text. It takes a while for people to realize how much their cultural identity is developed through shared experience and shared reading. But unfortunately for the developers of CCSS, they also introduced new math standards that were very instructional in nature which changed the way teachers taught math in the very early grades. Here they ran up against the phenomenon of neuroplasticity and garnered the attention and ire of adults.
There is a great video that provides a very clear demonstration of this idea of neuroplasticity. It gives a real world demonstration of how it works that should resonate with parents looking at Common Core math.
A quick synopsis is this: When we learn to ride a bike we take on a novel experience and begin to build neural pathways that help us remember how to do the task the next time. The more we practice the activity, the stronger those pathways become. When we try to do the same task using a different technique, our brain is strongly drawn to using those established pathways even though we can clearly see that the old pathway is not going to work to accomplish the task.
In the video a man tries to ride a bike that has been altered with a gear to reverse the steering. It takes him 8 months to accomplish this feat, during which time he is constantly fighting his brain to not go back to the other bike riding pathways because they won’t work on this modified bike.
A year later he tries to ride a regular bike and finds that at first he cannot, until his brain locates the old pathways and switches to using them. An experiment with his son, who has only been riding his regular bike for a short time, demonstrates that the younger more malleable brain can learn to ride the altered bike a lot quicker. His neuroplasticity is greater because the original pathways are not as strong. He doesn’t have to fight against an existing pathway to accomplish the task.
Doing some of the alternate methods for solving math problems in CCSS-M for adults is like giving them the altered bicycle. They know solving them should be easy and quick. They even probably know what the answer is, but they cannot do it the way the school wants their child to do it. It is frustrating and seems pointless. The adult’s neural pathways are set from years of repetition.
In this scenario the child’s neuroplasticity allows them to more easily pick up the new methods of solving problems because they do not have to fight against the pull of an existing pathway. This is why some kids got CC math and some teachers said the kids picked it up easily so the adults should just stop worrying. In fact, many adults were told to not teach their child the traditional way of solving problems at home because it would “confuse” the child. The reality is, it wouldn’t confuse the child, but it would add a different neural pathway and thus make the one they were trying to create in school less strong.
Before you consider this an endorsement of CC math you have to keep in mind that the type of problem solving they are trying to teach is unnecessarily complex. They have added several gears to a system that could be much more straightforward. And when the curriculum requires children to solve in a number of different ways, they are not developing the strong pathways for quick solutions the child will need later to do more complex math. When you get on a bike and have to spend a lot of time up front figuring out how many gears you have to work with, it takes you a lot longer to start peddling. This is the slow mathematical automaticity higher math teachers are seeing.
There is a book I bought several years ago that promised to help me do math faster. I ran into this problem of neuroplasticity.
A typical multi-digit stacked addition algorithm is typically taught solving right to left. That means that if you are solving the problem orally you will have to complete all three placeholders before you can verbalize the answer since we speak (read) left to right. The book promised to teach me to do math “faster” and basically I had to work a problem from left to right. When doing so orally obviously I could begin to give the answer faster because I had the left side of the solution done first. It was slow going at first but with practice the newly formed pathway made it seem like it was faster. But after several months of not doing it all, my brain easily reverted to the traditional right to left pathway.
Was one method superior to another? Not really. It was just a matter of what the brain got used to. However, when you are doing more complex math the brain wants to revert to the strongest formed, usually first formed, pathway as we saw in the video, to handle the basic arithmetic. This frees up the processing portion of the brain to figure out which formulas to use to set up the problem. If that first pathway is not the fastest way to solve the basic arithmetic, the student will struggle to use the faster algorithm that was taught later, with less repetition. CCSS delays standard algorithms until 4th grade. It delays long division until 6th grade. All the while the neuroplasticity of the student’s mind is diminishing and only moderate pathways for basic arithmetic are being developed because so many different models for solutions have been presented and reinforced.
James Wilson and Erin Tuttle released a report last week critiquing the CCSS math Common Does Not Equal Excellent. They refute the claim by the developers of the CCSS-M that the standards do not dictate instructional approaches. They demonstrate that CCSS-M’s dictation of an instructional approach blurs the line between standards and curriculum. The Publishers’ Criteria which provides a pathway to success for publishers who want to produce CCSS-M aligned textbooks specifically states that unless approximately 75% of instructional time is devoted to these standards, the material is unlikely to be aligned. The neural pathway to be built up and reinforced will be the process one intended by the CCSS-M.
The standards instructional elements will definitely be tested, so the majority of class time must be spent teaching math in these very particular new ways. The high stakes nature of testing will incentivize schools to not waste time teaching processes not included in the standards. And even if schools do eventually teach the standard algorithms it will be too little too late. They will bump into the problem of declining neuroplasticity.
Had the developers of common core not hit parents with math standards that had backwards gears built into them, that made them not as easy as riding a bike, they might have gotten away with them.