“Yes sir,” came the senior’s proud reply.
“Then how many board feet are in a twelve foot long two by eight piece of lumber?”
The startled senior would stammer and admit that he had no idea. At that point my grandfather would lean in and say, “I could solve that problem in seventh grade, and they are giving a high school diploma to you who cannot even make a guess!” Then he would walk away like a gunslinger who had left his nemesis sprawled in the dusty street.
But I also take offense, much like the senior on the street of the small mountain town. It’s true; he didn’t know how to calculate board feet. Nor did he need to know a skill that served my grandfather well in decades past. On the other hand, my grandfather could never seem to figure out the remote for his television set, but the student could probably operate a computer with ease.
Times change. By the time I graduated high school, hand-held calculators had supplanted many of the skills I had spent years mastering. Today, free apps (PhotoMath) can solve complex problems and show the steps in the process. Industry is not looking for candidates capable of doing paper and pencil math procedures. They want people who understand how to use math as a tool to solve complex problems.
Common Core mathematics is a major step in this direction. Though it has incited much criticism, most of that falls largely into the category of my grandfather’s complaints. Common Core is about understanding math as well as performing it. It is no longer sufficient to simply get a right answer when a calculator can do that for so much less investment. The problems we face in our world are complex and require a firm grasp of mathematical understanding. For the first time, we have a set of standards formed by educational research instead of political appointees.
I envision an earlier generation when my grandfather would have been graduating from high school. A wizened member of his community might have challenged him, “You are graduating from high school, and you don’t know how to shoe a horse?” Times change, skills change, needs change. Let’s move beyond horseshoeing.