Demystifying the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice

Today, according to a school district’s curriculum, you have two standards to teach. The first is a content standard: “Find the roots, real and imaginary, of a quadratic equation.” The second is one of the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice: “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” How do you plan your lesson?

The first standard is relatively easy to teach and assess—introduce various solving methods, assign practice problems, give a quiz with five equations to solve, grade the quiz, and return it to students. Done! But how do you teach the practice standard? There is no single activity that you can give to students and call that standard “complete.” There isn’t a singular quiz problem you can have students work on to assess their understanding of the standard.

Most importantly: If you had to choose just one of those standards that students would carry with them outside of your classroom, which would you choose?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) include eight of these Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are quite different from traditional content standards. The practice standards cut across all grade levels and domains, and play a huge role in achieving the CCSS’s goal of building in-depth thinking, perseverance, and clear communication abilities. They provide students with a framework for approaching mathematics, and are applicable to subjects beyond mathematics. For example, Practice Standard 6, “Attend to precision,” is a requirement in writing and math. Students need to carefully choose words and attend to punctuation and spelling in order to make their writing clear, succinct, and descriptive.

The reality in the classroom, however, is that many teachers were themselves taught, and were taught to teach, primarily content standards. So, transitioning to teaching the practice standards will continue to be a challenge as teachers try new strategies and begin to agree on best practices. In an upcoming weekly series, we’ll examine each of the eight practice standards. Our questions of interest will be twofold: (1) How do we teach this standard? (2) How do we assess this standard?

The concept of math class as a factory for memorizing formulas and procedures has become increasingly outdated; students today need math to teach them how to approach unfamiliar problems, select and apply prior knowledge and tools, and clearly communicate their reasoning. Other organizations agree; the state of Texas, for example, includes seven Mathematical Process Standards in its high school math curriculum. The idea of explicitly teaching practices of mind is here to stay. Stay tuned for more information on these standards!

How have you used or assessed these standards? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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