Did We Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater?


    Recently there have been a lot of conversations about the “New Math” that is being introduced into the classroom. Many parents and some education leaders have stated that the basics have been forgone in the math curriculum in favor of concepts that students may not be able to grasp because of a weak background in the skills of adding, subtracting, multiplication, or division.
    Much of the nineties and the early part of the 21st Century saw Alberta and Canada ranked among the top five in the world in Math. Today according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) we have dropped to thirteenth. What happen? 
    As much as one would like to blame Alberta’s new math program on the lower math standing from the results of the PISA test the fact is students taught on the previous math program took it.
    Curriculum is always evolving. We have experienced “New Math” since the 1960’s when we first started teaching. Each of these “New Math” programs placed an emphasis on what was considered the needs of the day. The latest math program is no different. Do you remember doing math and the teacher saying you didn’t show your work on how did you get that answer? Or how about the time you figured a shorter way to arrive at an answer and the teacher saying, “that’s not how we do it!”
    We now know that students learn in different ways and not all students in the classroom learn at the same rate. Research has shown students born earlier in the year generally do better than students born closer to the minimum entrance age.  We also know that if you can have students manipulate objects using math concepts they learn those concepts quicker.  The recent trend, in math, has been to spend more time on concept development than on “rote” memory of facts. 
    Too often this has been interpreted as reducing rote memory of math facts to the fringes of math inquiry instead of a key component in the development of a child’s understanding of math.  As a long time basketball coach it would be like reducing the time on a players ability to shoot a basketball and spending more time on team defense and wondering why your team kept losing because it couldn’t score enough points.
    All one has to do is to go to your local Walmart or Target store and give a young cashier an extra nickel or dime so you can get back a Lonnie instead of fist full of change and watch them stubble trying to figure out what to do even though the register will probably figure it out. How many times have they even counted out your change?
    We need to recognize that curriculums will need to change just about every five years. In the past we stayed with a set curriculum for, in some cases, decades, but today we will learn more new information in the next six months that what use to take five years. This is in all fields of knowledge and much of that new information affects what we consider facts today. If we are to graduate students that are well informed and knowledgeable the curriculum must adapt and change to allow our students to be able to compete with the rest of the world.
    The danger is when a new curriculum is introduced that there is a balance between understanding and skills. Just as my basketball player needs the skills to shoot a basketball he will not be effective until he understands the concept of team defense. To do one over the other is a disaster waiting to happen.
    The fear is that concepts will be taught over skills and students will end up with neither the understanding nor the skills in math needed to be successful in the world of today. Unfortunately there are too many math “experts” who believe students do not have to be fluent in calculating math, as they can always use a calculator.  That philosophy could result in us throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

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