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"New Math" again?

This is where success in mathematics begins
This is where success in mathematics begins

In 1976, when I commenced my teaching career then as an elementary school teacher, we were instructed to emphasize metrics since the system would be fully adopted in 1978.

Then 1978 came and left, and we were still teaching the Old English measurements while still trying to interject some metrics. It turns out Big Business decided it did not want to go along with the rest of the world – it would be “too costly” for it and the small businesses to convert. So we didn’t.

It’s 2014 and mathematics teachers today are STILL trying to instruct the students about the two measurement systems, and usually neither topic receives fair coverage. As a result, 14 year olds really do not appreciate ounces and pounds or meters and kilometers. It’s a tragedy we created ourselves.

A few years later I taught from some of the “New Math” books, and as Elizabeth Green's New York Times article proposes, I do not recall much inservice instruction regarding approaches and techniques in delivering the material. It was a hard sell at best, students and parents mired in confusion, and eventually “New Math” went the way of “whole word” reading instruction.

These days I substitute from time to time, one day a 4th grade, the next time 11th, and often I am a mathematics instructor.

What do I see? For the most part, I see students who do not enjoy or appreciate mathematics, especially the high school students. Those in high school want to (and are often allowed to) use calculators for every activity. Many do not even really know their times tables!

If they do not even have that basic skill in their quiver, I understand why mathematics is a challenge and a hassle for them.

There are those who have a natural love of the subject and excel. It is obvious which ones are mathematically inclined, and they will succeed no matter the hurtle.

But too many other students just do not see the relevance of mathematics to their lives, and fail to apply themselves and acquire the skills required.

Basic skills used to be called “arithmetic”. We learned how to multiply and divide, and how to measure an object in weight, size, and volume. We learned our times tables. Period.

I believe the issue today is more related to discipline than instruction, whether it is called “arithmetic”, “mathematics”, or “New Math”.

All students MUST MASTER basic arithmetic skills. All must know their times tables by the end of 4th grade. It is simple memorization, just as they memorize the lyrics to songs they hear. By “knowing” I mean able to recite 2s – 10s tables as quickly as they know their own names. We are a base 10 system, so learning 11s and 12s seems superfluous (extra credit).

With a strong foundation students can launch into true mathematics. They can learn to appreciate being able to figure out how much wallpaper to buy for a room, how much fencing for a yard, how much paint will be required for a job, managing a household budget, and the best price when buying items at the grocery store. What is the best deal on a new car loan? What is this thing I hear about all the time called “The Stock Market” and how might I invest?

Mathematics will be relevant to their lives. They will want to learn.

Higher mathematics skills such as algebra, trigonometry, calculus, math analysis, statistics…..maybe.

Or maybe these are for the students who are mathematically inclined to decipher while the others investigate and research true life skills such as relationships instruction (how to be and choose good friends, what “puppy love” is, how to cope with a broken heart, what to look for in a life partner), nutrition instruction (what food additives are and what they can do to you and how to avoid them, essential foods, GMOs), how to take care of your bicycle or car (and understanding gear ratios and how they affect biking and driving)….on and on.

The “New Math” approach found ways to make the material seem relevant and interesting.

If schools apply the approach of making arithmetic/mathematics instruction relevant and interesting, no matter whether in the form of “New Math” or traditional, attitudes and aptitudes will change.

Everyone seems to enjoy touting how poorly U.S. students perform on mathematics tests. But look at our country’s productivity and business prowess. Yes, we may not score as high overall on tests around the world. But somehow, as has always been the case, we are managing just fine.

But let’s do make arithmetic/mathematics relevant to our children’s lives – and give them the gift of the joy of learning and living.

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