Put a Common Cork In It

Standard

Mae govannen, Mellon! Tolo ned; dortho. What’s that? You don’t speak Elvish? I said, “Well met, Friend! Come in; stay.” Don’t worry about which words mean what – just trust me; that’s the phrase. All you have to do is remember it, and you will speak Elvish too!

Okay, you’ll probably need a little more to get by, so if you run into trouble you should also remember Noro lim! (It means, “Run fast!”) Got it memorized? You may also want to practice saying them out loud so you can pedo (speak) well. If I’m throwing too much at you too fast, just ask me to daro (stop) – but I bet if you drill with some flashcards you’ll be able to absorb it soon enough.

Welcome to the Elvish-speaking world!

What, you don’t quite feel fluent? Of course you don’t; this is a completely ridiculous way to teach someone a language. Maybe you could hold down a job as a greeter at a Grey Havens jogging track (“Come in! Run fast!”). At best you could train an Elvish dog. But you certainly won’t be chatting with Elrond about the merits of mithril anytime soon.

If you have ever learned a language – and if you are reading this, I know you have – you know that an alphabet and some common phrases are not enough for conversation. We need vocabulary, and syntax. We need an understanding of the rules. In short, we need grammar.

And yet, for generations we’ve been teaching the language of math just like I taught you Elvish.

Learn those letters (digits 0 through 9); sing the alphabet so you can remember their order (counting); memorize these combinations and what they mean (drill those times tables); and BOOM. Good luck communicating!

The human brain is an amazing thing that can commit an impressive amount of information to memory – especially if it is useless – but after a certain point it just can’t memorize any more. Without some grammatical rules to govern things, the wheels rapidly fly off the Math Mobile. (At around fifth grade, for most people.)

Fortunately, education specialists know that learning logic is just as important for math “numeracy” as grammar is for literacy. Which is exactly what the Common Core sets as the new goal* of early math education.

[*I say “goal” because the Common Core is a collection of skill goals for each age and subject around which teachers and schools design specific curricula. It is not a set (or dictated) curriculum itself.]

Yeah, math homework looks really weird now, but that’s because – in addition to the old carry-the-one remainders method of doing math on paper – kids are first learning to think of numbers as collections and combinations of other numbers. They are learning the logic of math instead of just the labels. Like how a language speaker can look at a word she has never seen before and use prefixes, suffixes, and roots to figure out the definition anyway.

When a person who is “good at math” does subtraction or division in her head, she doesn’t line things up on top of or next to each other and fiddle around with carried numbers. No, she looks at your weird Facebook post celebrating your child’s 31st week of life and thinks that 31 is almost 32, which is itself made up of eight fours, and since there are four weeks in a month calculates that your child is just under eight months old because that’s the way normal people mark time, Thank You Very Much.

If that isn’t how you do math in your head, I am betting you probably don’t consider yourself “good at math.” Our kids, on the other hand, will be, and that will benefit everyone.

Is it annoying that future generations are going to know how to do stuff better than we can? Absolutely. Kids already think they know everything and this is only going to make them more obnoxious. But fighting against numeracy (or the Common Core in general) because “that’s not the way we learned it” makes about as much sense as going back to treating acne with urine. (Yeah, we used to do that apparently. Ew.)

Now, if you want to fight all the standardized testing, that’s a completely different issue. I will be right there burning the No. 2 pencils and bubble grids beside you. Tol acharn! (Vengeance comes!)

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