New Math or Common Core

The Common Core: reactions include arguments that it will be dumbed-down, too rigorous, too rigid, too lax, and, of course, will bring an end to education as we know it. Others view it as the same old system of education dressed in a pretty new suit and freshly-shined shoes. There is also a group who see the Common Core as a positive change for educators and their students.

The Common Core in mathematics states that there are more project-based assignments and real-world applications in the ideal curriculum, and that fewer topics will be covered each year, but in far greater depth. There is far more emphasis on reasoning and how one arrives at one's answer, and less emphasis on rote memorization.

To some of us, this is already beginning to sound very familiar. Let's go on a brief exploratory tour of the history that has led us to this moment.

Kilpatrick and the Project Method

Kilpatrick was a mathematics (and then education) instructor whose most important contribution was a 'child-centered' curriculum, which was a much-needed change from the rigidity of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century classroom environment. He is known as the originator of the Project Method.

In the Project Method, students chose projects to complete, independent of the input of the teacher and without background knowledge. Unfortunately, rather than seeing the classroom as an environment in which the child is allowed the freedom to make choices and follow work with which they feel passionately engaged, Kilpatrick felt the child should be able to pursue whatever task he or she wished, even if that excluded certain subjects entirely—including his own. "Math," Kilpatrick once said, "is harmful rather than helpful to the kind of thinking necessary for ordinary living" (Boyd, 2011).

Students did not progress, at least not in a way that was measurable, and Kilpatrick came under fire from his contemporaries, including Dewey, his mentor. Even Kilpatrick could see his efforts had failed. He began to speak less of "child-centered" philosophy and more about how to practically engage students with project-based learning based on their interests. As a result of his ideas, teachers began to integrate project learning into their classroom alongside traditional memorization and learning from lecture.

The New Math

In the late 1960s, students were rejecting authoritarianism and imperialism, and this was inextricably intertwined with the rejection of rigid teaching modalities. The Project Method, with its emphasis on student desires and increased freedom made it the perfect choice for the times.

At the same time, the New Math was coming into being, the subject of Mr. Lehrer's rather infamous song. 'New Math' included such arcane topics as bases other than ten, matrices, symbolic logic and abstract algebra. The New Math emphasized mathematical reasoning over memorization, and the fear was that it was creating students who could theorize (but not actually do) math. As Lehrer put it, "it's the idea that's the important thing."

The infamous Why Johnny Can't Add: the Failure of the New Math debuted in 1973 and sounded New Math's final death knell. Nonetheless, many children who were taught using New Math helped guide the computer programming revolution of the 1980s. Whether their thorough grounding in reasoning has anything to do with that is perhaps a Post Hoc argument.

The Common Core

The Common Core is not meant as a set curriculum, but a series of standards. This is a fine, but important, distinction, because it means that the states can choose how to cover the material.

Its adoption in mathematics marks several key shifts:

  • More project-based learning. Just like Kilpatrick, your students are going to be using math to solve real-world problems on longer-term projects.
  • Emphasis on logical reasoning skills. Students will have to explain how they arrive at answers, and emphasis will be placed on learning logic and reasoning skills (just like in the New Math).
  • Depth, not breadth. There are fewer topics per year than there were in most state curricula, and teachers are expected to spend more time on each—a necessity with project-based learning (also similar to the New Math).
  • More sensible scaffolding. The order in which topics are covered seems more sensible than in the past. One aspect of Common Core is how clear it seems in comparison to last-second, typo-filled standards written by one's home state, funded on a shoestring and executed by a small panel of non-representative instructors.

So, the question becomes: what are we all so afraid of? You would think that the Common Core meant the end of the world as we know it, when what it actually seems to be is a mathematics that is a bit more organized, a bit less rote, and covers information in more depth.

And the answer is: we've been burned before. We've put our heart and soul into new ideas in an unbroken line back to the first generation of public schoolteachers eager to make a difference. For those who have been in the education profession for twenty years or more, it can seem like an endless parade of newly re-packaged products that simply slap a sticker over the old label: New! Improved! And we won't be fooled again.

What makes the Common Core unusual is its level of support and funding. It appears that the Common Core is here to stay. At least, until the next big thing comes along.

Royer, J. M. (2003). Mathematical Cognition (p. 178). N.p.: IAP.