Like so many others, math made me pull out my hair. I took as little as possible in college and once barely completed, I swore — like most struggling students — that I’d never use anything more than a little addition and subtraction anyway.
Then along my professional career in education, I ended up working in a special needs high school classroom for math and science. Suddenly I needed to know everything from Long Division through Algebra 2.
Terrified of reliving some of my most embarrassing math class moments and utterly confusing students who were already behind, I took the materials home to teach myself Algebra 1 — the level where things began to go wrong in my own schooling. I came to love the subject for their puzzles, but still find word problems more frustrating than obvious.
Then halfway through my time at the school, we were pressured to switch over to Common Core and I had to relearn how to explain the same concepts to my learning disabled and chronically behavioral students.
This switch in teaching has caused problems outside the classroom as parents struggle to assist children being taught math in a manner that is completely different than how they were taught.
Still, helping with homework is part of every involved parent’s job. There’s nothing more frustrating (and embarrassing) than being asked for help but not understanding yourself.
This is particularly the case when your child is still in primary school. Angie Werner, mother of 7-year-old Ayla, recently sat down with her daughter who’d asked for help with a word problem outlined as followed:
“There are 49 dogs signed up to compete in the dog show. There are 36 more small dogs than large dogs signed up to compete. How many small dogs are signed up to compete?”
The problem seems simple at first, following the problem to come up with the first step of 49-36=13.
But the next step, given the canine participants, wasn’t lining up because 13 doesn’t divide neatly into two categories. Werner turned to her Facebook group Breastfeeding Mama Talk Privately for assistance.
The parent group’s consensus was 13 large dogs and 36 small ones. The child’s teacher, however, insisted that the correct answer is 42.5.
If you’re like me, you’re brain is screaming, “what?!?” But the teacher explained that the “district worded it wrong” and suggested that the problem listed was not age-appropriate.
Somehow, the correct arithmetic is as follows: 49 – 36 = 13, then 13 ÷ 2 = 6.5, then 36 + 6.5 = 42.5. That’s right, the correct answer involves half a dog.
While math is considered to be objective because there is “one” right answer, more and more examples have circulated social media that have sparked passionate debate and have called into question formulaic problem solving.
The correct answer to this problem, though weird and impossible, shows how easy it is to make a mathematics mistake when we assign incorrect formulas to problems.
What looked like simple subtraction was actually an alpha-numeric Algebra equation and certainly not age-appropriate for a 7-year-old.
Similarly, I posted an algebraic equation a few months ago that had two “clear” answers depending on your understanding and skill of Order of Operations.
Full disclosure, I posted it sure that I had the right answer and was tickled by the heated debate happening under the original post. By the next day, I realized the other answer was indeed the right one.
Not only was I embarrassed, I came away with it for a better understanding of the importance of Common Core which seeks to provide context to concepts we were all just taught to memorize.
While every comment argued about proper application of Order of Operations, perhaps trying to find a practical application to the numerical symbols being manipulated in the equation would have painted a clearer picture.
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