Monday, March 24, 2014

The New Math is Old!

(Disclaimer) Methinks the link below goes to a right-wing conservative site which I normally would not recommend to anyone.
But it is a rare fact that for once, conservatives and progressive liberals are on the same page about the Common Core and Standardized Testing.  We’re just coming at it from polar opposite directions regarding education.


That being said however, the example given here is a wonderful explanation of the different processes that various people (including students) use to understand math. I mean really understand, not just to do rote algorithms that they have had to memorize, like math was taught to me. I needed another way than I was taught. I had some serious problems learning fractions, algebra and trig. Even though I got A’s in my high school math courses, I had no idea how to apply it to real life problems. In fact, I aced Trigonometry because I had a great tutor, my hubby (then boyfriend) and because I could memorize formulae, not because I understood anything about Trig. I learned a lot of math I wish I knew long ago when I learned to teach with Everyday Math. We've had it all wrong all these years. We were educating future factory workers who would take direction well and do things efficiently and not future mathematicians and scientists who actually think about multiple possibilities for answers. There needs to be room for both. Take a good look at each way to solve. It might be better to print it out.

Our school has been using those methods for the past 12 years. We often heard from those parents at school who thought their method of doing math was better, even though many freely admitted they weren't too good at math! All they really needed to do was come to school and learn why we were teaching this way and allow themselves the “fun” of being taught to do the problems and play the games that would reinforce their children’s math skills. If they did that we were usually able to bring them around to agree with us.

Prior to changing math series, 3th, 5th and 6th grade teachers had stopped using the school district’s math series altogether. It was a horrible book to follow and our kids were getting nowhere fast. We taught without a textbook for 3 or 4 years because we thought the texts were inappropriate for our needs. Adopting the new math series was not taken lightly. There were 5 program choices and we examined each one carefully before making a decision. Then we piloted the series in one room in each grade so we could tell whether it was going to work with our inner city kids.

Although the teachers had to learn how to teach math all over again, and the teacher’s guide was permanently attached to our hips for the first two years, we saw an immediate change in standardized math test scores for the better, with 75% of the kids in the pilot classes scoring high on the open-ended questions, while only 35% scored well in the control groups. I won’t tell you the rest of the staff went gently into the new series, Some came through kicking and screaming about how if the old math was good enough for them, it was good enough for their students. But it wasn’t good enough; we had way too many kids scoring way too low. We needed to do something then to reverse the trend. It took a couple years of staff development once a month until most teachers were sort of comfortable with it, but I did have to go around and collect the old math books from the lower grade classes before a couple teachers bought in.

It was a steep learning curve for the teachers, me included, but our kids did so much better with the new series, which used unorthodox methods to do the basic operations. I learned many surprising things while teaching Everyday Math. Did you realize that there are at least two ways to add and not use regrouping? Three ways to subtract without “borrowing”? Three ways to multiply multi-digit numbers? At least three ways to divide? I didn’t know any of that before I was introduced to Everyday Math. In fact, during report card conferences, I heard from a few parents who were born in the Caribbean that some of these “new” ways were the ones they were taught in school in their native land. One mother from the Dominican Republic showed me an astounding way to divide, one I had never seen before. For 18 years I taught remedial math to 3rd, 4th and 5th  graders who just couldn’t get it. I only took the ones below the 27th percentile, and that was about 25% of the student population. I’d hypothesize that anyone below the 50th percentile could have used my services, but there weren’t enough hours in the day. The last year I taught, close to 65% of the students were scoring proficient or above on the math PSSAs. We had been using the series for 10 years at that point. The “new” math works.

These are legitimate strategies for doing math. I taught some of them to my remedial math students in the 1980s. Nothing there is new. More kids would learn math well if they were allowed to play with the various methods and choose the one that works for them. If for no one else, kids that don't get the traditional way need alternatives. Adding mentally is quite fast when you get to higher numbers and you are less prone to "carrying" or "borrowing" mistakes. Plus it strengthens their understanding of place value, which will help them in middle school pre-algebra and algebra. The danger is going too fast - you have to play with the place-value blocks until you get it, then go to the lines and x's until you get it, then on to numerical representations. If we want them to move, not at their pace but at ours, it'll never work.

Seriously, the way we were taught is sorely lacking, but you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, I am proof. I didn't learn these methods until I was in my late 30's-early 40's. I so wish I had been taught that way in grade school. Maybe then I would have felt confident in the higher math. But instead I shied away from higher math at all costs. Try it with an open mind. No student should be required to do the numerical representations for regrouping numbers until they are 10 or 11, when they are capable of more abstract thinking.

Please trust me, the methods work. They really, truly do. My students for the last 12 years proved it over and over again. Try it, you might like it.

If you need another explanation, try here:

Still learning!

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