“PLEASE, can you help me, Mrs. D.? We are having a math test TOMORROW and I don’t understand anything!” This has been the most common complaint I have from my sixth- and seventh-grade tutoring students (ages 11-13). Whether the topic involves geometry, equations, story problems, or even more basic calculations, nearly all my students (excellent students, too) are having the same dilemma.
If you are a parent or educator who has wondering for years (as I have) WHY we HAVE the new math, this post will explain it clearly. (Part II explains why the new math is not working in many schools.)
The New Math Style
The new math style in some schools appears to be, “The teacher doesn’t explain—he or she merely facilitates ‘groups’ while students (hopefully) just teach themselves.” Like many people, I have felt confused for several years about the new style of math teaching. Instead of presenting a lesson, giving students guided practice, and then sending them home to do independent practice (homework), the new style, which my tutoring students are experiencing, seems to be, “Don’t follow a text book (even if they are available). Instead, just find some seemingly random problems off the internet (seemingly without any overall coherent plan of units), tell students to put themselves into groups, and pass out the photocopies. Tell the students, ‘See if you can find some solutions to these problems. Do this for three or four days, then tell students, “We will be having a test on Friday.’ “
Of course parents’ reaction to this is panic. Eighty percent of the children are LOST with this approach. Those who can afford it are rushing to math tutors, who teach the children by traditional methods what they should have learned in school. Those who cannot afford it have children who fail.
Let us look at a “hammer” analogy. Instead of saying, “Let’s learn how to use a hammer and see if we can get a good result with the nail pounded in correctly,” the new approach effectively asks, “Let’s learn why the hammer was developed, and how and why it works in theory….but don’t waste your time becoming competent in using one!”
Next, students are given a national or state test consisting of pounding nails into a board, which of course they FAIL! Meanwhile, the “experts” lament that they are unable to do it!
This is exactly what has happened with math education. Teachers using “traditional” methods have been drummed out of education (mostly retired), while younger teachers have all been trained to use the “new” methods.
WHERE did this approach ever come from?
I finally found the answer I’d been searching for, in a MOOC (FREE online course offered through Coursera, taught by world-renowned British mathematician Keith Devlin of Stanford University, Fall 2013, called Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.)
Devlin explains that in the job market, there is a need for two types of mathematical skills. He describes Type 1 skills as being able to solve math problems that are already formulated, and it’s just a matter of calculating the correct answers.
Type 2 skills involve being able to “take a new problem, say in manufacturing, identify and describe key features problem mathematically, and use that mathematical description to analyze the problem in a precise fashion.”
“In the past,” Devlin says, “there was a huge demand for employees with Type 1 skills, and a small need for Type 2 talent.” In the past, education produced many Type 1 employees and a few Type 2 employees. However, in today’s world, the need for Type 2 thinkers has greatly expanded. Not only do scientists, engineers, and computer scientists need to think this way, but new business managers also need to, in order to be able to understand and communicate with math experts and make decisions based upon properly understanding those experts. So the “new math” curriculum is an attempt by the “experts” to produce many more Type 2 thinkers; yet, it is FAILING to do so.
Prior to the late 1800s, math was viewed as “a collection of procedures for solving problems.” In the late 1800s a revolution occurred among mathematicians which shifted the emphasis from calculation to understanding. The new math of the 1960s was the first attempt to put this shift into the classroom, and the results were not successful. I see the current shifts to put new math into the classroom as the second attempt, which is different from the 1960s attempt (children are not studying various bases these days), yet no more successful in reality. Part II of this series will explain the three reasons WHY this is happening.