How the Common Core Can Save Your Life (Or At Least Help You Graduate, Get Into College, and Win the Girl of Your Dreams)

I recently discovered a book called How Math Can Save Your Life: (And Make You Rich, Help You Find The One, and Avert Catastrophes) by James D. Stein, who shares his thoughts on problems and scenarios that confront us and how we can use math (or simple arithmetic) to solve those problems. He also shares ideas on how to reform mathematics education and help students master their math facts. (I don’t want to deprive Professor Stein of any royalties, so I’ll leave it up to you to purchase his book and decide for yourself if his ideas are right on or not.)

In the spirit of How Math Can Save Your Life, I want to share my thoughts on how the Common Core can save your life—or at least make it a little easier to deal with.

Standard for Mathematical Practice #1 reads, “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” How can we relate this to life lessons? Simply look at any problem you have to solve in life (that doesn’t involve a textbook). You’ll likely have lots of data, perhaps too much or not enough to come to a “solution.” The problem may be ill-defined, or the question posed may not be clear.

On the other hand, problems in a standard textbook usually have the right amount of information—no more or less than students need. We are doing our students a huge injustice if we train them to expect that problems will always have the right amount of information or require just one technique to come to a solution. It’s important for students to revel in and embrace the struggle as they work to find a solution to a problem.

What are some real-world problems that require sense making and perseverance? One example is buying the right life insurance—should you select term? Whole life? Variable? Or how about choosing to invest in a 401(k) among the myriad options given to you by your employer—what percentage should be stocks? Bonds? Money Market? Or how about contesting the property tax assessment for your home—what data do you gather? How can you make a persuasive argument that the assessment should be lowered? How much has to be reduced to make it a fair assessment? Real-life problems, to be sure, require a good deal of perseverance to solve them.

Let’s try Standard for Mathematical Practice #3, “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” We have to defend our position or our ideas practically every day. While emotion is a strong influencer, it isn’t logical and can lose its impact or energy over time. This is where the practice of proof, logic, and rational thought will win the day. Ever had to convince your boss that your proposal is rock solid while your colleague’s has some holes? In a job interview, you have to highlight your strengths and be prepared to counter an employer’s reasons as to why you are not fit for the position. While we won’t all run for public office, politicians must debate their opponents with a combination of logic, clarity of thought, and wit. (Then again, anyone with strong opinions about politics must be prepared to do this too.)

Again, we have to prepare our students for lives that will require them to argue their side and find and articulate the holes in their opponents’ sides. Note that we are not preparing students to win a debate. We are preparing them to take part in debates that can take many different forms.

Finally, let’s look at Standard for Mathematical Practice #5, “Use appropriate tools strategically.” If the only tool we give our students is a hammer, then they will see every problem they confront as a nail. Thus, students need to be equipped with various tools to solve problems and various scenarios that enable them to figure out which tool is best. For math students, tools can consist of paper and pencil, computer software, graphing calculators, scientific calculators, patty paper, and graph paper. Later in life, the tools could be just as varied depending on the work environment. The medical field can use a simple tool such as a stethoscope or a more advanced tool like a CAT Scan. An advertiser could choose between story boards and a multimedia presentation to pitch an ad idea. A mechanic’s tools range from the ratchet set to the computer based diagnostic system. Not only do people in these professions need to know how to use these tools, they must also know when to use them based on the situation, audience, budget, timeline, and any other number of factors.

The Standards for Mathematical Practice were written by math educators to instill good habits of mind in young learners. It’s little wonder, then, that the Common Core aligns with life lessons so well; students who master these standards are headed in the right direction—towards being able to handle all the real-life problems they’re sure to encounter.

Note that I just focused on the odd-numbered Standards for Mathematical Practice in this post. That’s because I actually had witty answers for them! I’ll have to think more about the even-numbered ones for my next post. Stay tuned.

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