Maybe Math is Hard

We often hear the parent horror stories about the homework their children are sent home with. The backpacks packed with books that force kids to tip over. The assignments that require advanced degrees to complete. The hours of work for the youngest of kids.

The stories have gotten worse with the introduction of Common Core State Standards. Now we have parents posting ridiculous student assignments (usually on the math side of the learning equation), blaming Common Core for forcing their kids to focus on everything from the ridiculous to sublime.

Eduflack usually writes off such rantings. Common Core, after all, is all about the standards. Good districts and good schools leave it to the teachers to determine the best ways to actually instruct our kids. And those who complain about the state of homework reflect nostalgically on their own childhoods, forgetting that we all had some pretty bad years and some pretty horrific assignments in the good ol’ days.

And then I saw the homework assignment my second grader brought home this week. Less than a week into the new school year. In a district known as one of the best school districts in the high-achieving state of New Jersey. I get home from work to find my little princesa frustrated with the math assignment of the day.

How hard can second-grade math be, I foolishly think? I take off my suit and tie, change into the fatherly uniform of shorts and a t-shirt and sit down to help my emerging learner.

I find a photocopied sheet of paper that is practically blank. The math assignment has two sentences typed across the top of the page. The remainder of the 8 1/2 by 11″ harbinger of doom is blank. Plenty of room to show your work.

What were those two sentences? How hard could it possibly be to follow such short directions?

The bolded sentence read, “What is mathematics? Use words or pictures to provide your answer.”


When did my lovely second grader transform into Euclid or Archimedes?

When did second-grade arithmetic become a Greek philosophy course?

I know I’ve seen more than my share of Big Bang Theory. I remember the episode when Sheldon explains the meaning  and roots of physics. But I seemed to miss the episode explaining the universal meaning of mathematics.

And as someone who once actually studied calculus and took college statistics, I can honestly say this was the first time in my 41-plus years I’ve ever been asked for the meaning of math.

So I did what any caring father did. I faked it. I pulled out of my daughter an answer that I felt would suffice. To her, math was numbers. We through in a some plus, minus, and equal signs as well. She even went on to note how she needed numbers to enter the password on her iPod, to work the TV remote, and to tell time.

I considered the assignment done at that point. She read for 20 minutes, and then I let her go outside to ride her bike until it got dark. The edu-wife thought I should have pulled more meaning out of the edu-princesa for the assignment. But she isn’t even seven years old yet. How much meaning does math truly have for a six-year old?

I refuse to chalk this up to Common Core. Nowhere in the standards do I remember seeing the philosophical implications of math. But it does make me wonder about how we translate what kids are expected to learn into what is actually taught.

I wonder if maybe that mid-1990s Barbie doll is right. Maybe math is hard. 

And I wonder how Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein would answer the question. Or if there is even a right/wrong answer here. Or how many more times will I be stymied by elementary school homework.  

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