Understanding the (not so) New Math

https://en.wikipedia.org/
https://en.wikipedia.org/

I will confess I am a social media junkie and like to participate on a daily basis.  I encourage our teachers to use twitter accounts to share classroom happenings and I put effort into keeping our Pleasantdale School twitter account and Facebook page up to date. I have always had an unwritten rule about social media, that I follow not matter what.  I do not allow myself to jump into negative discussions.  I do not feel that social media is the place to voice our misunderstandings and would rather go to the source and try to educate myself before jumping on a negative band wagon that I may not understand.

Earlier this week, however, I came across a Facebook post about the “new” math.  Now I put quotations around “new” because I personally feel it is “not so new”.  I understand why people call it new, because it is different approach to teaching and learning math than most adults have experienced. The Facebook post I am referring to is one many of you have probably seen.  It shows a simple math question being answered in one step and then goes to compare the same math question being solved in multiple steps, using what might be an unfamiliar strategy for many of us.  The post goes on to imply that the long drawn out answer is what makes our “new” math so ridiculous and nonsensical.  It also implies that all aspects of all math classes involve long drawn processes, rather than a simple algorithm solution.

Now, most of know that things in the media or, as an extension, social media, can be portrayed just a bit biased or out of the context of the big picture.  In seeing the post I felt myself being drawn into the discussion.  I explained my understanding and experience of math in the classroom on a daily basis.  I quickly, however, jumped out as the discussion continued on in a negative direction.  I could see that no one was wanting to consider any other perspective than the one they already had.

As a child my experience with math was a very negative one.  I would start each new year, with my new scribbler doing well with the first review unit.  I like my notebooks neat and clean and would line up my questions in neat and tidy rows, feeling confident.  However, my confidence was more often than not, soon dashed.  I did not understand numbers and my memorization of basic algorithms only took me so far. Soon my tidy notebook was a mess of erased spots, scribbles and re-written numbers.   I could not transfer my understandings from one context to another and soon found myself repeating the same memorization process while being secluding away from the rest of the class with others like me. Somehow repeating the same methods of learning, over and over again, never really worked.

My experience was so negative that when I was choosing where I wanted to go after high school I actually tried to find a future career that would not require me to do any math. I remember flipping through college brochures trying to find some career in which I could work with children but never have to teach them math.  Thankfully, my confidence in math did build as an adult and although I did not directly start my career to be a teacher and a principal, I was able to achieve these goals and I realized, as an adult, I could in fact understand and do math.

Grade 4, Understanding Multiplication
Grade 4, Understanding Multiplication

This story and confession leads me to why I wanted to write this post, rather than continue in a negative Facebook discussion.  I think that there are many parents, community members, and others who still wonder why we are teaching math in this “new” way.  I think we have tried to educate others about the need for our students to understand numbers and not just memorize algorithms in order to be successful in using math in many different situations.  I also think that we need to continue to do so.

I have countless moments of awe when I am hanging out in math classes with students.  As a matter of fact, my own math confidence continues to grow as I watch our student work in math classes demonstrating, for me, ways to break down and understand numbers I have never considered before.  I can relate to the struggle a non-confident math student goes through and it is a wonderful thing watching them reach understanding by allowing them to use other strategies and straying away from only memorizing basic algorithms.

Representing numbers, Mrs. Mukendi, Oxbow School
Representing numbers, Mrs. Mukendi, Oxbow School

One of the best explanations for our need to use “new” math strategies , that I have seen, is in a video Why is Math Different Now?  Posted by Dr. Raj Shah who is the owner and founder of Math Plus Academy in Columbus, Ohio.  I hope you will take a few minutes and an open mind to watch his explanation and consider his thoughts.

The things I think I would like to share about math in the classroom today are the following:

  1. There are many ways to arrive at an answer to a math problem, not just one.
  2. It will perhaps surprise some, that the “old” way of doing math is still a strategy taught to our students and used in the classroom every day, but it is not the only one.
  3. It also may surprise some to know that we do, in fact, continue to drill the basic math facts that provide the foundation to all other math.
  4. Many of the problems that will face our children, are not one-step, one solution kind of problems.  We will need our children to understand there are many solutions to most problems and have the skills needed to consider those multiple solutions.
  5. The thing that has the greatest effect on a child’s confidence in math is the attitude of parents or caregivers to the subject.  Positive talk about math, new or old, is very important to student success.
Grade 5, Patterns in numbers
Grade 5, Patterns in numbers

 

I think raising children and teaching are two of the hardest, but most rewarding things that we are blessed to be able to do.  I hope we will not keep adding new things to our already busy lives, but I hope we will never keep trying to get better at the things we already do.  If you are wondering about reasons we have moved to the processes involved in “new” math in the classroom today, please do not hesitate to talk to a teacher.