Want Your Kids To Survive Common Core? (short version)

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(This is a shortened version of Want Your Kids To Survive Common Core? Do These 6 Things. Also check out my page on misconceptions and fears about Common Core.)

People are frustrated about Common Core. There have been a lot of issues with how it was rolled out. That said, CCSS is here to stay in a lot of states.

So the important question is this:

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.

How does that relate to parents?

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”, kids learn that you, as their parent, don’t value productive struggle.

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 learn that it’s better not to try something hard than to risk failing at it. 

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. 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. Don’t worry so much about the answers.

They may cry or get mad. 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 effort into the process.

3. Value productive struggle, not just achievement

If we value productive struggle, we need to be careful what we compliment and what we reward. 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.

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 hard to watch kids struggling with the new curricula. 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—toward schools and government—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

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. It’s worth spending some time in productive struggle before you ask for help, but if you do really need assistance, model asking directly and unabashedly for it. Ask the teachers to explain things to you. Work on learning them.

6. Make your complaints to the school, not your kids

I get it that some of the new 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.

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.

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.

(This is a condensed version of Want Your Kids To Survive Common Core? Do These 6 Things, also published today. I’d 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!)

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