A Wrinkle in Math

My daughter has been quite fortunate this year — she has a terrific math teacher, and she has blossomed and grown in her math skills. Most critically, she’s gone from hating math to loving math, including declarations such as, “When I go to college, I want to major in math.”

But I know that across the country, many children (and their parents) are not having the same experience. Every time I hear elementary school parental frustration about “Common Core math,” I’m reminded of this passage from one of my favorite novels as a child, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time:

“Have you done your homework, Meg?”
“Not quite,” Meg said, going back into the kitchen.
“Then I’m sure Calvin won’t mind if you finish before dinner.”
“Sure, go ahead.” Calvin fished in his pocket and pulled out a wad of folded paper. “As a matter of fact, I have some junk of mine to finish up. Math. That’s the one thing I have a hard time keeping up in. I’m okay on anything to do with words, but I don’t do as well with numbers.”
Mrs. Murray smiled. “Why don’t you get Meg to help you?”
“But see, I’m several grades above Meg.”
“Try asking her to help you with your math, anyhow,” Mrs. Murray suggested.
“Well, sure, “Calvin said. “Here. But it’s pretty complicated.”
Meg smoothed out the paper and studied it. “Do they care how you do it?” she asked. “I mean, can you work it out in your own way?”
“Well, sure, as long as I understand it and get the answers right.”
“Well, we have to do it their way. Now look, Calvin, don’t you see how much easier it would be if you did it this way?” Her pencil flew over the paper.
“Hey!” Calvin said. “Hey! I think I get it. Show me once more on another one.”
Again, Meg’s pencil was busy. “All you have to remember is that every ordinary fraction can be converted into an infinite periodic decimal fraction. See? So 3/7 is 0.428571.”
“This is the craziest family.” Calvin grinned at her. “I suppose I should stop being surprised by now, but you’re supposed to be dumb in school, always being called up on the carpet.”
“Oh, I am.”
“The trouble with Meg and math,” Mrs. Murray said briskly, “is that Meg and her father used to play around with numbers and Meg learned far too many short cuts. So when they want her to do the problems the long way around at school she gets sullen and stubborn and sets up a fine mental block for herself.”

I think that for some kids, what is being marketed as the Common Core’s approach to math is intuitive and makes a lot of sense. But why are we insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach? I’m all for having kids show their work, but why do we insist that all of our kids must show the same work, rather than simply ensuring that the methods they’re using are mathematically correct and make sense to them?

For some kids, subtraction through “counting up” makes sense. For others, the traditional method of borrowing make sense. If both methods are mathematically sound, and both methods produce the same result, then why the insistence on forcing one method on all kids?

And, of course, although Meg may have been labeled “dumb in school,” at least her graduation and her future were not tied to high-stakes exams that forced her to demonstrate her proficiency at “the long way around” of completing a certain math problem (unlike the sample 3rd to 5th grade PARCC math problem that requires the kids to, one-by-one, click 48 boxes in an array to demonstrate their “understanding” of 6 x 8 = 48).

This all reminds me of this oldie but goodie from second grade math last year, with the teacher who inspired last year’s hatred of math: