3 shifts in the math core = 1 big shift in teaching

08/21/2013  |  By WYNN GODBOLD
Common Core

Love it or hate it, willingly or force fed, we are taking a bite from the Core. Here goes the next big educational experiment. Are you ready? Whether you answered yes or no, take a minute to consider the following. The ideas in this article will help you along your journey to digesting the Core and quite possibly enjoying a piece of its fruit. For digestibility purposes, we will look only at the math side of the standards. First, we’ll look at what was wrong with state standards in an effort to see the “Why” of the Core. Then we’ll discuss the three major shifts in the mathematics section of the standards, and finally we’ll see the shift and opportunity that lies ahead for teachers.

We stand now at the threshold of bringing authenticity, joy, and success back to your classrooms as we let go of the checklist and embrace the deeper learning. Will we step up?

Let’s Begin With “Why”

It doesn’t serve us to belabor points of contention. I prefer we examine the theme and big picture of why the Core.

Typical state standards which preceded the Common Core were excessively long and broad. Even if a teacher wanted to teach all of the standards included in a typical grade, there simply were not enough school days in a year — perhaps in several years — to teach what was listed.

One might think that the assessments designed to evaluate student learning of these standards would be a point of guidance to teachers working from a list of standards too long to teach. State assessments however were often built on vague blueprints that often surveyed or sampled the standards.

Teachers were therefore often left with the “best worst option” of simply covering as many of the standards as possible in order to hedge their bets for what would appear on the assessments. This created an intense pressure on teachers, who had limited time. The level of student learning was considered only after the pacing charts.

For decades the long lists of standards coupled with accountability pressures have led to an unbalanced focus on what is being taught, rather than on what is being learned.

These are part of the big picture of why the Core. These problems lead us not to better teaching and increased learning, but more often into checklist, coverage, and getting through.

What Makes the CCSS Any Different?

In both literature and mathematics, shifts have occurred from the former state standards to this one Core. As I stated, we will avoid being overwhelmed and narrow our focus in this article to the mathematics shifts. There are three main shifts that are the cause for “One Big Shift in Teaching.” The shifts in mathematics instruction are in: focus, coherence, and rigor. Under rigor there are three points to consider equally. We’ll address those in a moment.


In the words of AchieveTheCore.org, “ ... U.S. standards use to be arranged, giving equal importance to all four areas — Number and Operations, Measurement and Geometry, Algebra and Functions, and Statistics and Probability — like “shopping aisles.” Each grade goes up and down the aisles, tossing topics into the cart, losing focus. The CCSS domain structure communicates the changing emphases throughout the elementary years. Early emphasis on operations and algebraic thinking and number and operations — base 10 build to more sophisticated concepts in middle school and then to authentic algebra ...”

In essence, we have the opportunity to pull all math instruction in one direction — toward the focus standards of our grade level. However, please be keenly aware this will require teachers to possess deeper content knowledge in math than ever before. No longer will we check off a concept as “taught.” We will teach all concepts as they relate to the focus of our grade level standards. The big ideas of math will be more connected than ever. Content taken in combination with the “8 Standards of Mathematical Practice” — which are for all grades k-12 — will stretch us to teach beyond coverage.


The second major shift in math is coherence. When you hear coherence I want you to think across grade levels — vertical alignment — and across math concepts or strands. Mathematics should make sense for our students. It is part of our daily lives and as such happens in interconnected ways. Consider a trip to the grocery store. You select the fruits you wish to buy, weigh them, check their prices per pound and pay for them. In the one act of buying fruit, you used math across the strands and at varying degrees of complexity. Within the Core, we have opportunity to provide our students with mathematical instruction that builds in complexity and incorporates multiple strands in a cohesive fashion, much like life.


When you consider rigor, think beyond harder. Rigor in the Core actually comprises three points that are addressed with equal intensity. These are: conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application. The Core standards are more rigorous than previous state standards because they require students to have conceptual understanding. It is not enough to just memorize multiplication tables. Students now need to understand what multiplication is and how it works so that they can use the principles of multiplication in situations outside of simple multiplication or fact practice. Following this example we jump from conceptual understanding to application and see that the knowledge of how multiplication works will enable students to apply these principles in solving real world problems or unexpected application situations. Without a doubt the Core also expects students to be fluent in the facts, as evidenced by the middle principle — fluency — outlined in rigor.

It bears repeating that the Core sets the expectation that all three components of rigor are addressed with equal intensity. Students should not learn facts at the expense of application nor should they be bogged down in application at the expense of conceptual understanding or fluency. This triangle of learning intensity opens new doors for teachers.

These three shifts: focus, coherence, and rigor open doors for teachers. In a sense we are coming back to teaching children for life not covering material for the sake of checking off the list. This life changing teaching is at the center of every great teacher’s heart. The challenge is to help teachers understand the opportunity that lies ahead. It will not be easy, as the Core requires teachers to stretch beyond their comfort levels, to dig into their content with renewed sense of personal learning, and to examine their professional practices and collaborative professional communities.

In spite of the challenges and current misunderstandings surrounding this move to a Common Core, I petition teachers to be inspired by the opportunity they have now to teach congruent with their passion.

Teachers are naturally lifelong learners. They can embrace this call to dig deep into the content. They can share the learning experience with their students by relaxing back into an authentic teacher-learner position, and celebrate these years of growing into the Core through a decision to improve practice guided by the big ideas — focus standards. Share with others. Use the Internet to be in communication with people outside of your school building. Broaden your understanding of this opportunity to achieve.

We stand now at the threshold of bringing authenticity, joy, and success back to your classrooms as we let go of the checklist and embrace the deeper learning. Will we step up?

Wynn Godbold is the founder of the International Academy of Bee Sharp Teachers. You can learn more about her and the Academy by visiting www.BeeSharp.us.
Comments & Ratings

  9/4/2013 3:12:17 PM

Chief Visionary Officer 
Everything you write Wynn shares you unwavering passion to support children and educate teachers. Keep up the good work!