In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched the earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. The launch served to intensify the arms race, and that put a spotlight on a national problem: education. Congress responded a year later with the National Defense Education Act, which increased funding for education in the areas of science, mathematics, and modern foreign language. Now, spin the clock into the twenty-first century and once again the United States needs to change the philosophy of education because it’s falling behind.
Common Core is a new math curriculum established in 2009 by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Deborah Vicente, a 5th grade math teacher at Alfred W. Hanmer Elementary School, explains the essences of the Common Core,” It is not memorizing and spitting back facts, but the student must be able to use it. In math, what that meant was, instead of just being able to do the skill, now they must be able to solve the math problem using that skill, based on a real life problem.” Common Core establishes guidelines to ensure students are prepared for the future.
Imagine, as a first job in high school, you’re working at a warehouse that ships cereal boxes to the local supermarkets. The question is how many cereal boxes can fit in the big container, and then how many containers can fit into the truck, which will transport the cereal to the supermarket. Prior to Common Core, students would need a picture of the prism with the dimensions and at that point they could start to calculate volume. Now the student can solve the problem with what they already know about volume.
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was the first to study the cognitive development of children. Piaget questioned his own children and others before using the results as a platform to his 1921 article in the Journal de Psychologie. Piaget’s theory is that children should not be taught certain concepts until they reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development. Piaget’s study became a core belief of U.S. public education.
Before Common Core, Piaget’s fourth stage of formal operations which begins at the age of twelve is where the child can form abstract ideas. Twelve is also near the age children starts the introduction of algebraic variables.
Christopher Green, principal of the Russian School of Mathematics in Wethersfield,CT remembers being a student locally, “Usually, when you start sixth grade, and if you’re at the top of the line in your school, that is when you start pre-algebra. This was the traditional sequence, especially twenty years ago.”
The Russian School of Mathematics, an alternative math enrichment center, prefers the theory of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, that an early approach focused on the development of reasoning skills can have a powerful impact on student development. It was not until the 1970’s when, in the western hemisphere, Vygotsky educational concepts were introduced. Vygotsky, suggested that learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers on real world problems that build on each person’s language, skills and experience.
Nate Wheeler, a faculty member at Norwich Free Academy, wrote about the similarity of the Common Core and Vygotsky social theory ,” The Common Core State Standards for the state of Connecticut and nationwide are a step in the right direction toward revamping our current education system. Throughout the standards, there are strands that can connect to many learning theories, such as most of the work done by Lev Vygotsky in his social theories. As the foundation of modern Constructivism, Vygotsky’s ideas are similar to those written in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), especially in regards to how students should be learning.”
Today’s youth are well prepared to conquer those ninth grade blues before puberty because of the change of philosophies from Piaget to Vygotsky. In April 1983, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by T.H Bell Secretary of Education, examines the quality of education in the United States.The findings in the years of 1976-1981 stated that “Twenty-five percent of the credits earned by general track high school students are in remedial English and mathematics. High schools offer intermediate algebra, but only thirty-one percent of our high school graduates complete it.” Common Core State Standards define what students should understand and be able to do in their study. The third grade mathematics standards include, “Operations & Algebraic Thinking”: which introduces problem solving that involves multiplication and division.
Common Core also has limitations.“The limitations you hear alot about are, that it is not developmentally appropriate for students,” said fifth grade teacher Vicente. “I think in fifth grade, especially in math, it is developmentally appropriate if they had Common Core up to this point. It can be daunting for kids that aren’t ready to learn that yet.”
Principal Green agrees, “Schools are teaching a lot of procedural stuff and they are not always talking about the why?” The Russian School of Mathematics introduces abstract language of algebra at an early age. It provides comfort which is difficult to achieve later, and also helps to maintain flexibility for adapting to unfamiliar ways of thinking. “Math is about developing reasoning skills, and that is hugely important for anyone coming into this world.”
Common Core helps you put things together, analyze things, synthesize things and be a critical thinker much more than I was required to be back in the eighties. My own son Xavier, a ninth grader, has been gradually introduced to the concepts. “In sixth grade, it was the first time I saw variables and it was very basic.” Now he’s doing algebra.
It seems obvious that the earlier schools can expose kids to algebra, the more comfortable they will become with the concepts. But I do wonder, if today’s high school students are better prepared to analyze data and be critical thinkers, why do they always forget to take the trash out?