Fourth Grade Math: A Dad’s Journey From Frustration To Realization

MathWell, there you have it. Right there in black and white…my reaction to seeing my 4th-grade son’s math homework, and not having a clue how to help him. It was long-division for crying out loud. It’s supposed to be easy, right?

The worksheet he brought home baffled me. One section had something that resembled the long division I learned as a kid, but there were twice as many numbers as I would have expected. There was also a giant ‘7’ that extended the length of the page, which had numbers on both sides. What was this stuff?

Another section had a box called an ‘area model.’ It looked exactly like what we were taught to do to find the area of a room – length measurement on one side and width measurement on the other. …only this was being used to solve a long division problem. I scratched my head and hoped he didn’t ask me for help. …he did, of course, and I was clueless.

If you’ve got kids in elementary school, I know you can relate to this. They no longer teach math the way we learned it. Initially, this frustrated me. I knew it would take only ten minutes to show my son how to do long division the traditional way, and he’d get the right answer. But I also knew that wasn’t what the teacher was looking for. I just didn’t understand why.

Why Was I So Frustrated?

My initial Facebook post turned into an interesting exchange between friends (fellow parents) confused by Common Core Math, and those who ‘get it’ – including a few current and former math teachers.

Parent comments we’re pretty consistent: “Teach kids to use a calculator” “This is bizarre and scary” “Common Core makes me want to homeschool.”

On the flip-side, others seemed to like it: “This will help them think mathematically, which will help with word problems/applying math concepts in the real world” “It’s different from how I was taught, but it resonates better with my guy.”

My teacher friends were also strong supporters of Common Core math.

As I read their comments I softened a bit on the topic. Maybe there was something to this new math? My son had done pretty well with it, so maybe I was the problem? Why was I so frustrated?

Math 2

…but that’s not all.

Math 3

I Needed to Know More

That night, I walked into the school library and saw more than 20 other confused parents sitting quietly at large wooden tables. I found an inconspicuous spot in the middle of the group, and one of the teachers handed me a packet of blank math worksheets.

Things kicked off with the principal telling us how the teachers approached him with the idea of hosting 4th Grade Parent Math Night and offered to do it all on their own time.

Then, one of the teachers led a group of kids through an activity she called a ‘number talk.’ She wrote a math problem on a flip chart and the kids, sitting on the floor around her, worked it out in their heads using common core techniques. It was impressive.

That’s when I got what I wanted – an explanation of why elementary school math has changed.

The new way:

1.  Helps kids see and build the numbers, which makes it easier for them to understand why they’re doing the problems in the first place.

2.  Emphasizes visualization over memorization

3.  Builds problem-solving skills

4.  Teaches kids that there’s more than one way to solve a problem

They also showed us this video:

…then it was time for the parents to get to work. The teachers walked us through various ways to solve multiplication and division problems. We were then given time to complete our worksheets, with the teachers roaming through the room answering our questions. And yes, I had questions.

Nearly two hours after the meeting began, I felt like a fourth math whiz.

What I Really Learned

I now know HOW to solve problems using the techniques being taught today, and I’m ready to help with homework. I also understand WHY math is different now. And I think it’s a smart change, made by smart people interested in seeing kids succeed in a world that’s much different than the one I grew up in.

The less obvious lesson is that I recognized that I had been a victim of my own bias. I jumped on the ‘new math is a waste of time, just teach it the easy way’ bandwagon before I understood what it was all about. I didn’t ‘get it’ so I didn’t like it. Thanks to some great Facebook friends and some amazing teachers – I realized I’d fallen into the bias trap.

The best way to tackle bias is through education. I offer a sincere ‘thank you’ to the teachers who organized 4th Grade Parent Math Night. Now I can solve a long division problem using a Magic 7. I’m also reminded that no matter how evolved or educated we think we are, we need to constantly check our biases and never – ever – stop learning.


Special Thanks to my friends Hillary Lipko (@lamenta3) and Tara Haelle (@tarahaelle) – and the rest of you who chimed in to set me straight.

P.S. – For a small fee I’m happy to teach you how to use the Magic 7 to solve a long division problem. 🙂

14 thoughts on “Fourth Grade Math: A Dad’s Journey From Frustration To Realization

  1. Hi, Kirk:

    I am a mathematics professor at Kenyon College, and I really appreciate your writing this (and your open-mindedness in having your assumptions challenged.) I also want to commend something you said that is very important. So many people think they “just can’t do math” or just “aren’t a math person.” Like anything, some people find math more natural than others. But I truly believe there really is no such thing as people who are math people and people who aren’t. It’s just that most people have been taught to think of math as a bunch of meaningless procedures (not to call it voodoo) that tell you how to move symbols around on a piece of paper in a very precise way. No WONDER they don’t like it and don’t get it. This is so far from anything that I recognize as math that I can’t even express it.

    And you put your finger on something very important: “. . . if maybe, just maybe, I had been taught differently, I could have been good at it.” We really need to embrace the ideals of the common core and not let them be corrupted by the standardized test mentality that encourages the school system to stop teaching thinking and start teaching mindless and meaningless procedures. And we need to embrace the training of teachers so that they understand how to teach well with the common core. Your blogpost and others like it can help us turn around a horrifically bad approach to mathematics education.

    Thanks again. (PS—a lot of mathematicians I know have shared your post….It really captures some important things.)

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    • Thank you Carol. I thought this was all nonsense until I learned what it’s really all about. It’s pretty amazing. It was clear when I saw those kids solving fairly complex problems in their heads. I also see how quickly my oldest breaks down problems to find an answer. Today he asked me how it could take me 1.5 hours to get to work. I asked some questions which had him calculate my speed per mile and then multiply it by the distance. I know I wasn’t doing that at 9 years old. I’ve seen the proof that this method works.

      The teachers also told us that the kids will be learning the methods ‘we learned as kids’ when they get into middle school – which made me feel better too. This new math is just a new foundation, and I think it’s sort of fun. …but maybe that’s just me.

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  2. I object to correct answers found by the “wrong” method being marked wrong, unless the method required is specified in the question, or at the top of the test, or in the overall homework assignment.

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    • I used to feel the same way. I was frustrated seeing the right answer being marked wrong too. The point is for kids to learn the processes, which are intended to teach them to solve problems in several different ways. I do agree that the instructions should be clear though. Our teachers have been good about clearly stating what they’re looking for.

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  3. Math was always easy for me. I understood the old-fashioned algorithms AND the concepts behind them. But I’m willing to accept the explanation here of how common core presents the concepts, and I accept that it may be helpful for some students. But I have yet to see anyone explain this: After breaking up the pieces as they have done, how is the student supposed to know how to get the partial answer for each piece, such as the 20 times 40 = 800 in the example? Calculator, something akin to the old-fashioned algorithm, another algorithm, memorization? This point is always glossed over.

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    • My understanding is that at that point there is a bit of reliance on memorization, mainly the multiplication tables. What makes this really interesting to me – and it’s more obvious in division – kids have the ability to use the facts they know best. If they know their 2’s and 5’s they can solve most problems, it may just take a few more steps. If they know all of the multiplication tables they’ll still get the same answer – just in fewer steps. It sort of levels the playing field a bit by giving those kids who have trouble with memorization a method by which they can solve the problem too. I thought that was really unique. I didn’t realize it until the teachers explained it. Think of the teacher having to teach the concept to a class of 25 students – half of whom don’t know the multiplication tables. This helps solve that problem. Doesn’t replace the need to know the basics, but it helps the kids who may be struggling to keep up.

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    • — Place value ideas are emphasized in common core. So if a student knows that 2 x 4 = 8, she can reason, with help and over a lesson or two, that 2 x 40 is 80: since 40 is 4 tens, 2 x 4 tens is 8 tens, which is 80. Extending this a bit, again over a few lessons, she can start to internalize the idea that the extra “place value zeros” can just be placed at the end. With the right lessons, this is not so much memorizing a trick as gaining number sense about place value.

      — As Kirk mentions, 2’s and 5’s are important, and students are often taught to look for a way to “make ten” or “make 100”. A student might see that 20 x 40 = 20 x 5 x 8 = 100 x 8 = 800. While a student might write out these steps when first learning this idea (sometimes called compensation) the idea is that students learn to think through this mentally.

      — Similarly, a student might think: 20 x 40 = 2 x 10 x 40 = 2 x 400 = 800.

      — The distributive property is also emphasized. So a student might learn to try “splitting up” a number: 20 x 40 = (10 + 10) x 40 = 10 x 40 + 10 x 40 = 400 + 400 = 800.

      There are certainly other ways as well, but most rely on an understanding of place value and, yes, memorization of some multiplication facts like 2 x 4. The idea is that these strategies will have been practiced already, well before multi-step problems like the example are introduced, so that this 20 x 40 step is almost automatic.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your withdrawal from the “Common Core is stupid” bandwagon. In the end, you talk about two things you learn: HOW to solve problems in new ways and understanding WHY learning math this way is beneficial. For parents helping with homework, I think it’s easy to see HOW students are solving problems, but not at all easy to understand WHY.

    Your four points about why math is taught differently than when you were in school boil down to one thing: the importance of making sense of numbers—the WHY, and yet Common Core doesn’t deny the role of learning procedures (another WHAT) as so many seem to fear. The introduction to the math standards states, “Mathematical understanding and procedural skill are equally important…” The difference is that we want our children to be flexible in their thinking, to have more than one way to access a problem rather than rely on the memorization of a procedure–something that fails them as soon as they forget one step.

    As a side note, I wish more parents (and students) would have the opportunity to be part of number talks. They are a powerful way to build number sense and develop computational strategies, to focus on relationships rather than rules, and to invite conversation about the WHY.

    *For those who haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing or participating in a number talk, you might check out Jo Boaler of Stanford’s video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXNG6GKFhQM

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  5. Thank you for so clearly conveying this message. As an educator for over 20 years, and a current math coach working to educate teachers and parents about the merits of the new standards, I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience.

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  6. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 18/12/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your experience as a parent with Common Core Math. As both a parent and a Math Instructional Specialist for grades K-12, I have been defending CCSS every chance I get. It is so refreshing to find a parent who decided to learn more, even when his initial reaction was one of upset. For 20+ years I have worked in public schools, watching students struggle with math and trying to help teachers find ways to help learners make sense of difficult concepts for which they had no foundational understanding.

    Since the implementation of CCSS, there have been struggles for teachers and parents, but for the students who are being taught the strategies, it is making a big difference. I am genuinely excited to wait and see what the children who started school with CCSS in KG will be able to do by the time they get to middle and high school. Hopefully more parents will begin to see what you have seen, and the standards will not be thrown out or changed yet again.

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    • Thank you Teresa. I have started doing basic math using the techniques I learned in that short parent session and it’s changed the way I think about numbers. I see how great it’s been for my kids thus far. I think at least one of them will have a math-related career as a result.

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