Breaking Up with My iPhone Calculator, and other Math Thoughts

I’ll admit it. I have found myself struggling to figure out “math” in everyday life – relying on my cell-phone calculator in the kitchen, grocery store line, you name it. And I’m sure I’m not alone.


That may be why so many parents have been baffled by the latest viral math problem: Does 5×3 = 5+5+5? Over the past week parents and educators have been debating this question after a parent posted a photo of a third-grade math quiz where the student was marked incorrect for solving the problem as “5+5+5=15,” instead of “3+3+3+3+3=15.”

Let’s be very clear though, 5+5+5 = 15, now and forever, regardless of what standards you have in place.

The Today show weighed in on Thursday morning with a segment on the now viral math problem and did what so many others have erroneously done – lay it at the Common Core door.

As Andy Kiersz notes in Business Insider:  “While this worksheet does present a frustrating situation, it has nothing to do with Common Core. Common Core lays out a set of objectives for what students should be learning in each grade level. It’s still up to individual states, districts, and teachers to come up with the curricula and lesson plans to achieve those objectives.”

This is an important distinction, but we also should acknowledge that the math problem here does raise important questions about how we approach and understand math. To many of us who learned multiplication through rote memorization only, the Common Core’s emphasis on understanding the why behind math is unusual, if not altogether foreign.

But there is a strong rationale for this shift in approach. Former high school math teacher Hemant Mehta stresses that, understanding math at the foundational level will help students later on with more complex math.

“What if we taught kids to think about 11 x 7 a different way, right up front? Instead of focusing on memorization or quick tricks, what if we told them to break down the problem a different way? What if we taught them to do 10 x 7 (which is easy enough for anyone) and then add another 7 to it?

I know that seems slightly more complicated than before, but here’s the beauty of it: It won’t be long before they can do 11 x 27 in their heads. All they have to do is think “10 x 27 is 270… and then I just have to add another 27 to get 297. DONE!”

It’s so much easier to do the harder problems when you really understand the basics. Most people never understand the basics. They think they do. But they don’t.”

The Common Core aims to ensure that our children have a solid understanding of these basics, so that they’re better prepared to conquer math in the future. Not only that, this type of foundation helps foster analytical skills that will help children sort out all sorts of situations that life may throw their way.

As we shift to these new approaches in math, we’re going to need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable – of embracing a type of learning that is wholly unfamiliar. As the Today show segment notes, this can be frustrating to parents because it’s different from the ways we learned math in the past.

Let’s focus on helping parents – help their children not just understand math, but learn to love it. School districts from New York to California have already been working on this by holding Parent U workshops and math nights to help parents understand the shifts in Common Core math. If there hasn’t been one near you – ask for one!

There are also great online resources for parents, directly tied to what students are learning:

Online Resources for Parents

Content Support:

Video Overviews:

Jim Cowen is Deputy Director of Collaborative for Student Success