Virge Cornelius | March 09, 2011

When I posted the link to Keith Devlin's NPR piece from Weekend Edition Saturday- “The Way You Learned Math Is So Old School (listen below)-”on my facebook page, it generated more comments than any link I have posted in a while.

Somehow being a high school math teacher with 21 years experience makes me an expert on all things math, even elementary school math curricula, according to my (facebook) friends. Parents of grade schoolers heard the story and had their own Archimedes moment:

"Eureka! They are not teaching as much computation these days because the calculator will answer those questions! Being able to program and operate a calculator actually requires algebraic thinking, and that is why 3rd grade homework has more x(-es) in it than I remember!"

But the follow up questions and comments friends posted made me reflect on my chosen profession and passion. These parents wanted me to compare Saxon Math to Everyday Math to Singapore Math. Have I heard of these? Which is best? My response was that all "newer" curricula (and I do not mean the New Math from the 70’s) strive to have students form concepts instead of endlessly calculate. No one curriculum is better than the rest. Rather, all curricula need to be supplemented with other materials.

If, as an Advanced Placement Calculus teacher, I, unilaterally, taught from our school-issued textbook, my students would not have the full understanding they need to succeed. Similarly, though calculators will sum fractions with unlike denominators, not teaching how and, more importantly, why, a common denominator is needed to preform the addition, will hamper students' ability later on in high school to execute a trigonometric proof. If that child ends up going to pharmacy school one day, guess what? S/he will have to pass an involved timed arithmetic test (fractions, decimals, percents) using only paper and pencil. So my question about these curricula is: does there seem to be a balance of conceptual and computational? If not, does the teacher supplement to create a balance?

I think the new approach to teaching mathematics is great. I get to help my third grader with her homework (when she lets me) and I see a good bit of conceptual combined with computational. All I remember about my third grade math homework is two and three digit multiplication for a few months followed by a lot of long division. Who knew in 1973 (thankfully I never had the "New Math") that we would purchase little machines for $1.99 at the grocery store that could do those problems for us?

The truth is, this generation is much better off, really. I hated arithmetic. I never saw any algebra until 7th grade, when the world of math just opened right-up for me. Maybe with these new approaches, we'll have lots more kids saying, "I love math" when they come into high school, and my job- which I already love a lot- will be even better.

NPR's The Way You Learned Math Is So Old School

Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman via Creative Commons