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(Also check out my page on misconceptions and fears about Common Core. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s being called “Common Core” when it really isn’t. I’ve also written a shorter version of this post.)
A lot of folks hate the Common Core State Standards, especially when it comes to math class. There are many new curricula out there, some of them not that good, and they’re teaching new methods that are different from what we learned. If you’ve struggled to know what it means to “make a ten”, if you’re not sure what decomposing a problem means, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s normal to struggle with this.
It’s normal to feel frustrated and angry when your kids are struggling, to feel upset when you don’t know how to help them get through their homework, to feel like “dammit, there’s nothing wrong with the way I learned this… why do we need all this new stuff?!”.
It’s normal for parents to struggle with this. And it may be true that the curriculum modules your kids’ schools use are first drafts that aren’t that good and need to be changed. And it’s not like there are Common Core police going around and making sure all the commercial curricula even follow CCSS correctly.
But I’d like you to think about this question for a minute:
What are your children learning from how you respond to Common Core?
Kids watch their parents for social cues.
They watch their parents to see how to react to new situations, and they take guidance from the way their parents address things that are easy as well as those that are hard. In particular, they watch closely to learn how to handle situations that are frustrating or unpleasant.
In my class, we talk a lot about productive struggle. Productive struggle is what we call it when people are working hard toward a difficult goal that is within their reach.
I strongly believe that skill doesn’t come from innate talent; it comes from work. I teach that the best way to succeed is to learn how to keep working when you’re not succeeding yet, and we work hard on learning to see confusion, errors, omissions, and mistakes not as failures but as opportunities for growth.
It works really well. Students stop being so scared of making mistakes; they learn to identify them, correct them, and move on. They develop and hone a growth mindset.
The idea of productive struggle is so important—the concept that you keep wrestling with a problem when you don’t understand. Maybe you ask for help, maybe you try another way, but you keep working until you get it. It’s not about whether things are easy or not.
How does that relate to parents?
What does your kid learn when you say “This is stupid. I can’t figure this out. I never had to learn to make a ten. It’s not necessary”?
They learn that you, as their parent, don’t value productive struggle.
Kids watch how their parents respond to challenges. When they hear “I never had to learn this”, they’re going to hear “and I shouldn’t have to!” lingering in the background. When you say “this is way too complicated; the old way is better”, they’ll hear “it’s important only do to things that seem easy at first”.
By attacking the challenge’s validity rather than grappling with it, you’re giving them a model to follow when struggling with their own problems.
And, perhaps most important of all: if they see you giving up on understanding the new ways of doing math, they may learn that it’s better not to try something hard than to risk failing at it.
That’s obviously not what we want.
I want to encourage you to support a growth mindset in your kids, and to strengthen them in their resolve to engage in productive struggle.
So what should you do?
1. Work on understanding a bit more each day
Nobody expects you to know how to do all this stuff right away. Teachers get it that they’re teaching your kids new content using new methods, and that that’s not going to make sense to everyone instantly.
When those choices come from the actual Common Core standards, rather than from a curriculum package, there are solid, well-considered reasons for the choice. You can read about a lot of them at commoncore.org, although you don’t need to do that unless you’re curious.
The bigger thing is to model for your kids the idea that you keep working on a problem until you get it. So if you’re struggling with how Common Core math works, think of additional ways to approach it.
2. Model process (working) rather than product (knowing the right answer)
If your kids are struggling with a math problem, ask them to show your their process. If they can’t show you any process, ask them to talk through what they’ve been shown. Don’t worry so much about the answers.
We need to teach the emotional side of learning, too. So do your best to model a process where, when people get frustrated and angry, they sit with those emotions but then find ways to keep working. If your kid has a meltdown about a number line, listen supportively but then help them get back to putting some work into the process.
3. Value productive struggle, not just achievement
If kids are going to get it that we value productive struggle, we need to be careful what we compliment and what we reward. If you claim to value productive struggle but only give praise for getting the right answer, the kids are going to catch on pretty quickly.
I’ve written about how I prefer to avoid saying “you’re so talented!” and “you’re so smart!”, so let’s start with that.
Do your best to shift from complimenting results (“you got it right!”) and character attributes (“you’re so good at math!”) toward complimenting process (“you followed the method really well!”) and effort (“you’ve worked hard on that!”).
If you’re rewarding your kids for things like good grades, go talk to their teachers and ask for help figuring out how to reward process as well as final achievements.
And when you see your kid really fighting hard to understand something, name that struggle and honor it. Show that you value how they’re choosing to stay in the fight and keep wrestling. You might use words like “I’m really impressed by how hard you’re working to get this. I know it’s hard for you, and you’re doing great.”
4. Be careful how you show frustration and anger
It’s totally reasonable to feel upset about all the new stuff in CCSS-compliant curricula, and it’s hard to watch kids struggling. I hope we can learn to reframe struggle into a good thing, but it’s not going to be instantaneous. (in a sense, reframing struggle is, itself, a good example of a productive struggle.)
It’s okay to be frustrated, challenged, or angry about CCSS. I just hope you’ll target your frustration appropriately, and think about how your kids are affected by what you say. Remember that they’re modeling on you all the time.
5. Model asking for help when you don’t understand something
It is hard to ask for help, especially if you’ve been steeped in the fixed mindset that people are either smart/competent or weak/needing-help. But really, asking for appropriate help is a critical skill for dealing with the modern world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how to install new brakes on my car, run a natural gas line to the stove, set up life insurance, or select dosage for prescriptions. It’s totally uncontroversial to ask for help from experts when you don’t understand things.
So let’s bring that same model to education. When your kids ask you for help and you don’t know how to offer it, model how to make a plan for fixing it. Talk about the kind of help you want, and then discuss how you’ll both approach your kid’s teacher to ask for that help.
It’s worth spending some time in productive struggle before you ask for help, but if you do really need some assistance, model asking directly and unabashedly for it.
Teachers want to help kids learn, and they’re thrilled to find parents who want to help support productive struggle and model good strategies for seeking help.
6. Make your complaints to the school, not your kids
Not everything in the new curricula is good. I get that. I’ve left this point ’til the end because productive struggle is about sitting with something uncomfortable and trying to make it work.
But I get it that there are some genuine howlers in the new curricula out there. Some modules are genuinely awful, and they rightly deserve to be criticized and changed.
Complaining about them to your kids and your friends on Facebook isn’t going to help much, though. If you think back to the modeling question, what are you teaching your kids when you criticize Common Core in conversation with them?
For many kids, the message they hear is that you don’t trust the schools you’re sending them to.
Think about that for a minute. How would it sabotage your work if you knew that your role models thought your job was stupid and pointless? How would it affect your work ethic? Would it change your willingness to enter into productive struggle?
Productive struggle involves getting the answers wrong sometimes, on the way toward figuring things out and getting it right. It’s grounded in believing that mistakes are part of learning, and that with hard work, we’ll get there in the end.
Doesn’t it undermine the whole productive struggle thing if we scream that Common Core is horrible? If we say that it is stupid, that it is impossible to understand, that it is problematic, and insist that it be repealed?
By saying those things, by insisting that CCSS is a mistake too dangerous to be endured, aren’t we modeling the idea that mistakes are deadly? That kids should fear error because, when adults make mistakes, we castigate them and throw their work away, never letting them speak again? That, if you get something wrong, you are worthless and incompetent?
When there’s a bitter, angry fight—instead of a reasoned debate—over curriculum, kids are the real losers. If we damage their trust in education and their willingness to struggle, we sabotage them for years.
When people make absolute, fixed statements like “Common Core is killing our students” or “Common Core is the best thing to happen to American education”, there’s not much room for change or debate. That means we’re teaching kids to think about things in terms of absolutes instead of wrestling with possibilities and finding room for growth. That’s dangerous, and it’s kids—not school boards and administrators and Pearson—that take the brunt of it.
If you want to criticize Common Core, I hope you will! Frame your concerns and present them to the people in charge. Ask for change. Ask for evidence of process that grapples with and incorporates your concerns. Bring a growth mindset to the table, and think about the adoption of Common Core in terms of productive struggle. Suggest next steps for how we can change things.
But please, be careful to do it in a way that preserves your child’s trust in schools and willingness to strive. Talk about what’s happened with Common Core as a first draft that strongly needs revision—additional process—rather than a crime against humanity. Cultivate a growth mindset.
Choose what you’re modeling.
I wrote a condensed version of this article, also published today, since not everyone is likely to read longer articles. Would you share it (or this one) with your friends and colleagues today?
I’d also like to hear your thoughts in the comments—when you think about what I’ve said, do you agree or disagree? Are you unsure? Leave a comment and we’ll talk!