Nan Austin

July 11, 2013

On Campus: Uncommon math question invites answers

Posing a question with no obvious answer makes kids think, argue, learn. The common core teaching strategy illustrates a leap from one endpoint of the education trends pendulum arc to the other.

On Campus

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When does 1 + 1 = 24?  That odd equation really engages the old noodle. 

Fourth grade teacher Lana Gundy posed the problem in a lesson she writes about in this week's Education Week Teacher. 

Here are a couple of hints: 
Changing one of the 1s to 23 doesn't work.
Changing one to 1 dozen eggs does work.

Here's the real answer: There are countless answers. It's not the answer that matters; it's the learning. In other words, it's not the destination; it's the journey. 

Gundy makes the point that in arguing this out, the kids essentially ran their own math class. That collective digging illustrates what the common core hopes to accomplish on a daily basis -- students taking the wheel, reasoning out a lesson and therefore remembering what they learned.
For those who have watched the pendulum of education strategies swing every few years, this iteration makes a lot more sense that the other end of the arc, i.e. last year. 
Lessons geared to raising test scores became ever more restricted. To the point that the cutting edge of educational excellence meant laying out every lesson for every child before the year began, all on pace for testing time. 
No one who has ever spent time with different kids (even our own) could possibly think that would work. But the pressure was on and the thinking was to make every lesson bite size and force feed it in.
By 2014, remember, voters were promised every kid -- every English learner, special education kid, foster kids, homeless kid, hospitalized kid -- would be at grade level. No child would be left behind. 
But children were being left behind, and the pacing calendar moved robotically on without them.  
The newest new thing, common core, is a leap from one side of the pendulum to the other. Back to hands-on experiments instead of paper drills. Back to a focus on better questions instead of bubbled answers. 
Discussion tips sound a lot like the Socratic method favored in top law schools -- pose a question and argue it out. Like: What two equal things add up to 24?
But taking the leap instead of waiting for the swing is causing its own consternation, and its own political backlash.
Here's some good news. Faced with big change and slim resources, teachers are reaching out to each other, sharing what works and what doesn't. Free, online resources are popping up with lessons and strategies -- one of the newest being OpenEd.
The very act of taking a leap instead of letting gravity do the work may end up being what helps teachers, and therefore students, the most.

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