The Weekly Re-Motivator: Math Problems are Writer Problems

Okay, this is a blarg about writing (mostly), how the fargo did math come into it?

Like this. My wife and I were reading a Buzzfeed article today (yeah, I know) about a dad who sent in a check using Common Core mathematics to send his own sort of indignant statement about his feelings on the Common Core. And yeah, it’s funny. But I also take an interest in this because I’m a teacher and Common Core, like it or not, is kinda my business these days.

Also, I’m a dad whose son is going to be headed off to the hallowed halls of learning soon, so Common Core is doubly my jam. Apparently, lots of parents in my generation struggle with the way they’re teaching math now, and that’s a problem, because math is hard enough for kids without coming home and seeing that their parents can’t do it either. Which is not a situation that I want my kids to be in. So I did a quick search to see if I could get a handle on this “new math” thing.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. For clarity, here’s what I read:

Lifted from Business Insider:

First, Carney explains the old way subtraction was taught:

Take this: 474-195.

Old way: Try 4-5. Nope. So cross out 7, carry the 1. Add 1 to 4. Now subtract 6 5 from 5. Write down 0.

Wait. That’s wrong. It’s not add 1+4. It’s 10+4. So cross out my 1. 10+4=14. Minus 5. Write down 9.

Next subtract 9 from 7. Carrying again. But remember it’s 9 from 6. Dammit. Cross out 4. Add a one … wait, a 10 to 7 … err, rather 6. 16 minus 9 is 7.

The four is crossed out. So it’s a three. Minus one

My answer is: 279.

To get that I had to add and subtract a lot. You can actually count the operations.

(1) 4-5.
(2) 7-1
(3) 10+4
(4) 14-5
(5) 6-9
(6) 4-1
(7) 10+6
(8) 16-9

(9) 3-1

= 279.

Notice how many occasions for error and how much switching between addition and subtraction is required. This is a system built to fail.

Now here’s Carney explaining the new way subtraction is taught:

They key to (new way) is realizing this subtraction problem is asking you to measure the distance between 474 and 195. You do that, in turn, by measuring the distance between landmarks (easy, round numbers). It’s turning math into a road map.

So 474-195.

Starting point is 195. How do we get to 474? Well, first we’ll drive to 200.

(1) 200 is 5 from 195
(2) 400 is 200 from 200
(3) 474 is 74 from 400
(5) 74+200 = 274.
(6) 274 + 5 = 279.

Not only are there fewer steps, the steps are far less complex. You aren’t carrying, or worrying about adding 10 then subtracting the other thing, then remembering to subtract one from the other column. It’s much straighter.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably read that and experienced a bit of skepticism. The way we learned it is simple; why complicate it by bringing in addition?

Except that the way we learned it isn’t simple. It isn’t any simpler than any other way. It’s only simple to us because that’s how we learned it, and we have, god, I dunno, maybe about ten thousand repetitions of it throughout our educational careers reinforcing that way of doing it? Of course our way is simple and this looks like gibberish.

But our way of doing math is no more intuitive for a child than this “new” way is. One way or another, kids have to be taught subtraction, and whether they do it this way or our way or some completely different way entirely (let’s come back around to this discussion in twenty years or so), the important thing is whether they get the right answer or not.

Come to think of it…

I seem to recall there being some argument about the way math was being taught around the time was being taught math. Lots of parents couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Tom Lehrer even had a song about it:

Which is great for making you feel very, very confused if you never learned how to do math in base 8. (What, you didn’t learn how to do math in base 8? That’s okay, NOBODY knows how to do math in base 8.)

Back to my point: there’s pushback on the current state of affairs in math classrooms. So the fargo what? There is always controversy about what’s going on in classrooms. Like it or not, our kids are in those classrooms, and no small measure of their success in life depends upon their success in their classrooms. So, to my way of thinking, digging in your heels and saying “No, this new math is stupid, I don’t get it, and I don’t see why my kid has to learn it” is a little bit like a dinosaur shouting at the oncoming meteor that if it’s all just the same, he’d like to get on munching on these palm fronds.


This iteration of mathematical thinking is here. It’s time to get on the train, whether it makes sense to you or not. Guess what? If you’re a parent, it’s your job to make sure you understand at least some part of what your kid is learning in school. And I’d much rather take a little time to learn something myself so that, when my kid comes home with a math problem he doesn’t understand, we can work through it together, than the alternatives: he flunks out since he sees dad doesn’t care enough about math to learn it, or we hire a tutor because dad can’t be bothered.

If you struggle with the way they do math, I’m not judging you.

But if you are sitting here insisting that Common Core math is bad and needs to be repealed because you don’t understand it, then I am judging you.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. Common Core in all disciplines has no shortage of flaws, but holy cheese doodles, at least educators are trying new things to fix our abysmal test scores. Point is, for the moment, this is the only train running. You can either hop on or walk.


This is a writing blog, as I said before, so — is there a tie-in here to writing?

You betcha.

Because the person who can’t — or won’t — wrap his or her mind about the “new math” is in a rut. They’re stuck in a routine that’s comfortable, that they see no reason to change. Which is all fine and well as long as they stay insulated in their own particular corner of the world.

But, short of living out your life on a mountainside, draping yourself in the skins of the animals you slay for food, the world has a funny way of not allowing you to remain insulated. You have to interact with other minds, which means interacting with other ways of thinking.

The good writer will embrace this inevitability. He’ll adapt his craft based on new things he learns, he’ll absorb and experiment with ideas from the world outside his bubble. He’ll continue to craft stories and characters and worlds that reflect the changes going on in the world around him rather than rowing his boat backwards against the current. The good writer — hell, the good human — will see something that challenges his way of thinking and examine it, poke at it, see what makes it tick, rather than casting it aside as a foolish diversion.

To do otherwise is to live in the past.

To do otherwise is the antithesis of growth.

To do otherwise is the root of so much conflict in our world it absolutely makes my head spin.

Give the new stuff a try. Just because it’s strange to you at first doesn’t make it wrong. It just means you haven’t tried it yet.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.