Math Problem Gone Viral!

Unlike earlier times, being in the II (2nd) grade is really tough these days it seems. With II grade math problem going viral over the internet in the 2010s, and even academically qualified adults finding it difficult to answer these questions correctly, it is time to take a step back and assess whether the curriculum design and the standards (or learning goals) that they need to achieve are appropriate or not.

In early 2014, a frustrated father posted a subtraction problem from his II grade son’s math quiz on Facebook with a note to the teacher calling it ridiculous. Here is the photo of the subtraction problem he posted:

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At that time, many people seized on this problem as evidence that the new (back then) standards are ridiculous. The standards being talked about here are the Common Core Math Standards released in June 2010 in the United States, adopted by 46 of their states. It is an attempt to end the “Math Wars” circulating around the question, is it more important for kids to memorise math formulas and compute – or understand concepts and create their own approaches to solving problems?

For the whole of 20th century, “traditionalists” who believe math instruction should focus on calculations and processes, and “reformers” who want students to develop the logical and conceptual understanding behind math, have disagreed with each other in the correct answer to this question. The Common Core Math Standards is thus, an attempt to prove that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive and this polarisation is nonsensical. It is an attempt to show that math instruction can embrace both conceptual and procedural knowledge. But according to William McCallum, one of the lead writers of the standards, it seems like curriculum designers, textbook publishers, smaller startups, school districts and teachers are yet to figure out how to best incorporate the standards into the lesson plans, classroom activities, homework and quizzes students encounter on a daily basis.

Let us take the example in this photo. Here, the problem asks how Jack, a fictional student, miscalculated the expression 427-316 when he used a number line (given) to find its answer. Students are then asked to write a letter to Jack explaining what he did right and where he went wrong.

According to the “Frustrated Parent” who posted this photo and many others, the problem takes a simple one-step subtraction problem and turns it into a complex process with a series of unnecessary steps, including counting by 10s and 100s. The “Frustrated Parent”, Jeff Severt, who has a bachelor’s in engineering, told that the problem was particularly difficult for his son, who has autism and attention disorders and trouble with language arts. He said that after spending two frustrating hours going over the earlier pages of his son’s math quiz, he was stumped by the problem himself.

Yes, being able to explain how you arrived at the solution – not just memorising a formula – is one of the key learning goals for students anywhere across the globe. But this learning goal doesn’t exactly require essay writing in Mathematics, right?

Another II (2nd) grade maths problem was recently tweeted by Louise Bloxham from England which stumped the entire internet.

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After trying to solve the problem themselves, many people on Twitter agreed with Bloxham, that it’s too complicated for six and seven-year-olds. People have come up with all sorts of answers on Twitter. The published answer for the problem was 65, but people with varying comprehension (some which can be arguably justified, some which are hilarious), have come up with answers like 46, 66, 0 and 1.

The conclusion? Let’s correctly set and interpret the learning goals for our students, especially the primary school students, and then design the curriculum in a way that helps us achieve those learning goals successfully. Applying good curriculum design by adopting a useless educational model is also of no use. Because to change what you get, you need to change what you need.

[Originally published on September 24, 2016]

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