We keep hearing people (like parents, the media, and politicians) talking about how “new math” is ruining mathematics education.
What is this “new math” of which you speak? I see the memes on Facebook and wonder, have I been teaching math wrong? Has math changed? Did I miss an email about this?
There are few reasons I find the concept of “new math” insulting. If you’re a seasoned teacher, you’ve probably heard parents complain about how this “new math” is so confusing and time-consuming. If you’re a newer teacher, you’ll hear about it soon enough.
But the truth is-math is not new.
I went to school in the 1980s. People complained about the “new math” back then. When my children went to school in the 2000s I listened to fellow parents complain about “new math.”
Not once since the beginning of school have we changed math and numbers. They are the same.
What has changed is how our students need to interact with numbers. Remember when you were young and we were told we needed to learn estimation because you would need this skill in the grocery store? No one will be carrying a calculator around in their pocket. Well, that isn’t true anymore. Students can calculate anything anytime…
…if they know how the numbers interact
…if they know how the operations work.
…if they have problem solving skills
…if they have developed personal strategies for solving math related concepts in the real-world
But it’s faster to do it this way
This is the number one “complaint” I hear from parents. Yes, most algorithms are faster because you can do them faster. It’s the only way you’ve learned. If you only do something one way and you do it over and over again, it will be fast.
I had a little contest at a parent-teacher-student meeting to show a parent how well his child can multiply. Students in Grade 4 are required to multiply a 2 digit number by a 1 digit number. But, I challenged this students to multiply 5 digits by 5 digits using his personal strategy. He raced his father (an engineer) who used the traditional algorithm. They finished AT THE SAME TIME!
And more importantly, my student could explain how the strategy he used worked, while the engineer parent couldn’t explain the purpose for each of the steps he used.
It demonstrated the importance of understanding the steps and this parent never “complained” again.
The strategy this student used was Lattice Multiplication. You can learn more about it in our post: Multiplication Strategies That Work.
It’s doesn’t make sense to me
Parents struggle with not being able to explain concepts to their children. Teachers struggle with this too. It has nothing to do with the math.
It’s the feeling of giving up control. As a parent, it’s terrifying that my child can do something that I don’t understand.
Compare it to technology in the classroom or home. Teachers who fear technology tend not to teach with it, despite their students being able to use technology easily. That fear holds them back.
Math is like that in the home. The idea that their child can do math in a way that is different than how they understand is scary-particularly at the younger grades when it’s supposed to be easy.
How I solved this problem: no homework. Our district has a policy for no homework, but even before that I didn’t send home math homework unless I was 1000% sure that the student wouldn’t need parental help.
I was so bad in math
We don’t mean to, but we often pass along our fears and worries to our children. Parents who were bad at math at school cause two different problems: they overhelp or underhelp. Neither are helpful.
Parents who were bad at math are usually quite vocal about it and cause their children to fear math (even when they aren’t struggling with math). Just talking about math as being this big scary subject is enough to derail progress.
Some of these parents try to help their children, but their misunderstandings about math sometimes get passed along. I once had a parent teach their daughter a shortcut to regroup numbers during subtraction. It took months to unlearn the “shortcut” that had her subtraction from the wrong side of the number.
The subtraction lessons started at home unnecessarily. This student subtracted numbers just fine before all the help.
Some parents undermine learning math, by saying they don’t use most of what they learned in school. Also, not helpful when you’re trying to teach what is required.
I was good in math
Parents who are good at math can be a problem.
Case and point-my father.
My father is an excellent mathematician. His job requires him to use math I don’t even understand-well beyond the university level. Think Einstein or Big Bang Theory math.
But, he is the worst teacher (I totally read him this paragraph and he agreed). I remember him screaming about the letter x in an algebra equation when I was in Grade 6. It left a lasting impression-in fact I never did understand what that x was for until I took a university math education course.
There was also a car left on the side of the road when I was sixteen, but that’s a story for another day.
Since my dad was so good at math, it was a hit to his ego to have a daughter that needed a math tutor through junior high and high school.
It turns out math skills are not inherited-good or bad. Anxiety about math is, however.
We don’t teach algorithms.
Well, that’s false, because I do. I don’t usually start the first day of long multiplication with an algorithm because let’s face it, it’s confusing. We work with numbers and procedures until students are ready to try the algorithm. This usually comes quickly when they understand place value, their math facts and can complete equations with multiple steps.
We start with the concepts that will help students and move toward teaching the procedures. It is not one or the other.
One of the ways we teach the concepts is by using Interactive Math Notebooks. We have a great post to get you started: Things I Learned About Interactive Math Notebooks.
We also have math notebooks that contain an entire year of lessons available in our store. Each bundle includes all the math strands, lesson plans, templates, photographs of student examples, worksheets and assessments.
New math is all about discovery.
Math class is not just filled with a bunch of students discovering how to do long division on their own while the teacher sits at a desk and plays solitaire on her computer.
Learning is all about discovery. That’s how our brains work. And we learn things better when we discover the concept ourselves. Our brains actually create dendrites when we learn new things and those connections are stronger when we discover connections or new things.
Math class should include some components of self-discovery to help reinforce concepts and build independence, but this should be done with guidance and scaffolding. Good teachers naturally do this. This might be considered “new” because it doesn’t involve rows of students sitting in a math class completing a worksheet (common practice for classrooms in the 20th century).
It looks like a lot of games.
Well, sometimes games make things fun. While I don’t believe everything has to be fun all the time, having a few games sprinkled in through the hard work is fun.
We assure parents that the games are rewards for learning a concept and that the game reinforces the learning.
One of our favourite games is Whamu! which uses task cards. We can send you a copy or you can find it in our resource library. Basically, it’s a game where students have to answer a question and the points awarded could be good, bad or even help the other team.
Did you know: the term “new math” came in 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik. In the United States, a push came in the education system to focus on more conceptual math over procedural math and thus the term “new math” came about.
So, “new math” is over sixty years old.
This is a letter I wrote in my head on the way home from school the other day.
I have been asked several times about this “new math” that our local politicians have been discussion during the election and the media has focused on for years. No, the answer is there is no NEW math. Math is math. Numbers are numbers.
And yet people have been complaining about new math since I was in school. Despite what some of my students think, it was only the 1980s. The media and politicians are also quick to “inform” parents about this “new math,” but again-these people haven’t stepped into a classroom.
So, let’s me put your mind at rest and declare there is no new math.
But there is something different about the way we teach math.
We do not teach math the way most parents were taught in school or even how I was taught. We do not teach students strictly to memorize everything by rote so they can rattle back answers, which was how math was taught by most teachers since the beginning of time. When I was in school we learned only by repeating procedures, but I never really understood the concepts (or at least I didn’t until I had to teach them).
I teach your children to think about how numbers interact with each other. I teach them to problem solve and to develop their own personal strategies. I encourage them to explain their thinking using math vocabulary. When they don’t “get it” I teach it to them another way using another strategy.
I know not being able to understand this “new math” that combines procedural knowledge and conceptual knowledge can be challenging for parents to understand as it’s not how we were taught to “do” math.
I ask for your patience with your child as they experience math. Soon enough, they will be able to teach you.
In the meantime, as your child is learning to develop his/her personal strategies, I ask that you don’t help by teaching them the way you learned it. They will get to that soon enough, but in the meantime they are trying to develop their own personal strategy. That means taking the time to experiment and learn with different methods.
When they learn the traditional algorithm, I will be sure to let you know and you can practice together.
Thank you so much for being part of our learning team.
Feel free to copy and use any part of the letter from above to communicate with the parents of your students. Keep in mind, I have already built relationships with the parents of my students. This letter is not the first piece of communication they receive from me in a school year.
How I help out the parents with “new math”
I post the videos I use with my students so parents can view them, too. By communicating with the parents of my students, it helps them understand “new math”
When we have parents in the classroom, we allow them to learn and explore the same way students do. Sometimes, trying something themselves helps break down those barriers.
Communicate with parents whenever you can. And explain to your students that their parents might have learned a different way. Change is good. It’s how we learned smoking is bad for you and seatbelts make you safer in a car.
What are your biggest beefs with the “new math” myths? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below.