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The new Idaho Content Standards were adopted for Math in 2011. School districts then began to train their teachers and transition toward using them. West Ada began using new math materials in the fall of 2013. However, this was a big change. It wasn’t just that the standards had been updated or tweaked, but they were significantly different in some very important ways. These new standards represented a different way of teaching math than most adults had grown up learning. In fact, there were three essential shifts:
- A focus on fewer topics
- An improved K-12 skill sequence
- A balance of conceptual understanding, efficient and flexible procedural skill, and application
It is this last piece that was so different. No longer were we asking kids just to memorize the steps for multiplication or division or simplifying fractions, but we were helping kids understand the concepts behind those rules. In fact, we were not going to start out by teaching them the rules or algorithms at all but would start by giving them activities where they would grapple with basic concepts and try to make sense of them in small groups. The teacher then guides the discussion and helps students start to build a conceptual understanding of these important ideas. As these groups report out on their findings they see that there are often multiple ways to think about and solve a problem. That teaches them to be flexible. Our goal is still to get kids to learn the short-cut procedures for all these skills, we just don’t want them to learn those first or to think that is the only way of solving a certain kind of problem.
These new standards also involve much more application problems. Most math activities or tasks involve a real-life type of situation. So instead of the “story problems” being saved for the end of a lesson, they are incorporated from the very beginning. That teaches them to be better problem solvers.
One of the challenges in this shift for our district has been to find good materials for tasks and practice problems. There were very few options for math books in 2013 that used this new approach. Sure, there were many publishers that tweaked their books and called them “Common Core”, but very few were truly aligned. What we have adopted as a district is not perfect, but is a step forward. We are still in the process of modifying our materials, deciding what skills are essential, and training teachers in how to best instruct students. We are still in the middle of this fundamental shift in math instruction and it is still a work in progress. However, we are starting to see solid indicators that our students’ conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills are much stronger than our old math approach produced.
We are fully aware that one of the big problem spots has been how to help parents to help their kids at home. We recognize how difficult it is to help kids with these “weird ways of doing math” that most parents never learned and do not understand. Therefore, we have put together parent tip sheets for elementary grades for each of our units as well as some links to other resources. For secondary grades we are developing helps specific to each class.