My late father never finished high school but he was determined that I would make all A’s in school, especially in math. In his mind that meant having me stay at the table after dinner, getting drilled on adding, subtracting, and multiplying. It was torture.
By the time I entered third grade, I had decided the multiplication table from from the devil. Thankfully, one day, my entire outlook changed. The teacher showed us a chart, as an after thought I believe, and all of a sudden I saw the ‘times table‘ in a new light. I finally ‘got’ multiplication. It wasn’t impossible. It was challenging, but it was also fun.
That revelation was a turning point for me. Over time I realized, that I could find ways to help myself with math. It wasn’t that I was math illiterate. The hard truth was, the methods that my teachers used didn’t always work for me. I’m glad that many teachers nowadays are appreciating, and incorporating, the different learning styles that walk into their classrooms everyday. But the more I see how some educators have reinvented simple arithmetic, I cringe.
Teaching math means teaching a system of problem solving. I’m a firm believer (even as a visual learner) that teaching math should not involve drawing cute characters or lattices or other symbols to help the young mind ‘figure it out.’ My experience as a parent is that it only confuses the child. Kids (at least my three) want simple, quick, and predictable. Sometimes mnemonics are required but not always, especially when we talk about math. After a Northwestern University study of children using manipulatives to do math, one little girl asked her teachers, “Have you ever thought of teaching kids to do these with paper and pencil? It’s a lot easier.”
Math doesn’t need to be re-invented. I’m happy to see that more recent studies by noted psychologists in the US are proving this to be true. Kids don’t need math complicated (or fuzzied) with unnecessary symbols and manipulatives. Math is computation. Hard. Cold. Impersonal. Predictable. Computation. And should be treated and taught that way. But I’m a little biased, I suppose. I’m an engineer first and an educator second.
I have compassion for my freshman students (many who haven’t seen math since 9th grade) who struggle with simple algebra. It makes for a long semester if all you know how to do is program a fancy calculator. Could it be that the ‘new’ math foundation they gained from elementary school isn’t working for them?
The new math is creating new far-reaching problems. Problems that I think college professors like myself will continue to see for a long while.