Understand common core maths? Then prove 7x13=28

The new maths are extremely difficult and confusing, writes Maryam Ismail

It's not fun to learn common core maths, says Maryam Ismail. Philip Cheung / The National
Powered by automated translation

‘You could eat a whole bag of Cheetos just to finish one problem,” claimed one parent after seeing a demonstration of what is being called “the new maths”. I wish I could say he’s wrong, but I can’t. You can finish a lot of stuff rather than soothe your stressed-out child after doing one lesson of the new maths.

We have done the same problem in three different ways. Each time we got a different answer until we found some hidden mathematical law and then – aha, got it! This is the jagged and twisty road of common core mathematics (CCM), which is heavily contested in the United States but has now made its way to some pupils in the UAE.

When my daughter first started to do it, she panicked and cried. I did my best to calm her. Then, after a few number lines that jumped between fractions, numbers and decimals, I was about to roll on the floor. Yet, I was not going to let those dastardly CCM wizards cast a spell on me. I was going to learn it.

I mastered algebra in school. Moreover, as a homeschooler I have a lot of time to play with numbers. But what about the busy parent or the confused parent? What will happen to them?

Common core maths is extremely difficult. When I called an American educator who had a doctorate in mathematics, he told me: “What those who created this method don’t tell you is that you need a solid maths background to master it.”

I have listened to a Stanford proponent of CCM who said that it was a way to make children understand that there is no set way to get to the answer – you can have a set of strategies that can be applied to real-life situations. That’s fun.

Well, that is great, but if it takes two days to make additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions or make young children find out how many plants can fit in a 10-metre garden, then forget it. Nobody has time for that. We all want our children to be prepared for the future, but this is too much work to still get the wrong answer.

I have teachers for my homeschool programme who assist parents if they get stuck. There was a “brainwork” problem that we were trying to solve just for fun. When our answer didn’t match with the one in the back of the book and we couldn’t figure out why, I contacted my teacher, who after three weeks still hadn’t got back to me.

According the Thomas B Fordham Foundation, which has been tracking the progress of common core since 2009, there has been much progress in teaching CCM strategies and methods in primary school, although it has not had the same success in middle school.

The comedian, KevOnStage, who on his YouTube channel has taken potshots at CCM, says: “You have to be born into it.” He said this from experience – his youngest son has learnt CCM from kindergarten and is mastering it, but his elder son, who learnt it the old way, still struggles with it.

In a national teacher survey conducted in the United States, 88 per cent of respondents said parents were unable to help their children with their homework. This means no reinforcement of school lessons at home. They also found that many teachers haven’t mastered the CCM themselves. If only ignorance was bliss.

A routine by the 1940s comedians Abbott and Costello – how to explain the equation “7x13=28” – has become symbolic of how many people see CCM.

To finish paying his rent, Costello gave his landlord $28, but the landlord asked for the $91 owed to him. Costello added, subtracted, multiplied and divided the three sets of digits and each time the answer was 28, because in this example: 7x3=21 and 7x1=7, so 21+7=28. If you can figure out why, you are an old maths genius and have common core potential. Stumped?

Costello didn’t use the tens place, because 7x13 is really equal to 91 in the real world. Old-school mathematics easily solves this equation, but after it was reinvented in CCM, it felt like an Abbott and Costello scam.

Common core maths is claimed to be the wave of the future, but many are drowning in a sea of strategies and going dumb from too many mind-numbing numbers.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who lives in the UAE