I remember when I was a kid my mom referred to “new math” as something I was learning. I just figured it was her way of getting out of helping me with any kind of homework.
Today I can totally relate, except now that I’m the mom, I think there is an even newer derivation of new math and The Girl and I have locked horns over it too many darn times. Over the school year, we finally (in order to save our relationship) both just agreed to disagree, and if she had any trouble with homework we circled the problem and sent it back to her teachers. That worked until summer when she was sent home with a packet that had to be completed with no one but me to help.
The results of said packet are my ten year old in tears because she’s “stupid” and me near-screaming at her that she is most certainly not, “THE DAMN MATH IS!!” I’m sure you can guess how effective that parenting tactic was.
Now, having been in a classroom for ten years, I try never to say anything to my kids that is derogatory about their school, their studies or their teachers. My thought is that I’m sure there is a rhyme or reason to the curriculum changes and I’ve been out as long as I was in said classrooms so it’s not my place to judge.
Until today. Today, I’m judging.
It all started over long division.
This school year she showed me some convoluted long-division and that’s when I knew times had changed. Mental Math is the new thing, teaching them shortcuts and tricks so they can presumably work most of it in their heads. When she showed me that this winter, she seemed ok with the process so I just let it go. After all, she’s never gotten below an A in math so I assume she isn’t struggling too much. Today, when she was going to need division to work on estimation and fractions and decimals, the process she knows failed miserably and she was reduced to tears.
In my opinion-mostly professional-the aim of this particular New Math is to teach kids to think. What I mean is this: math happens in my brain a certain way. I’m no savant, but I’m pretty good at math, at least that of a fifth grader. A lot of what I do when I’m working out problems happens in my brain now because I’ve had 35 years of instruction and practice with which to hone my skills.
For example, I can look at fractions or mixed numbers and divide them because for FREAKIN’ YEARS I worked through writing down the various calculations that had to take place to get the answer. In that doing, I started to realize if you divide by round numbers and estimate, then you can make it all work a little quicker. Just like when I add numbers in my head I round them all to the nearest round number and then subtract the difference. In my opinion-mostly professional and some just personally anecdotal- you can’t teach people to think like that, you learn to think like that along the way that you’re being taught the explicit processes.
You learn to think through rich discussion. You learn to think through debate. You learn to think when you work in groups or even individually, to complete problems you have just been instructed on. You learn math shortcuts and tricks because you’ve done 100 problems and your brain starts to see the patterns in those problems.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some explicit instruction on shortcuts and mental math. I am saying that for some kids, like my kid, they need to know the what and how before you can delve into the why. She needs to know she can solve the problem before you show her all the various ways she might do it. If her confidence is killed, no amount of shortcuts will matter.
So, today I showed her my math, which is only as old as my last 4th grade class. We got out scratch paper. We went through each step of the process, writing it down instead of trying to round to tens and do it in our heads.
You know what happened? She stopped crying and began to cruise through a practice sheet with a ton of problems-the very same kind of practice sheet that had her unraveled every other day this summer. She used a ton of filler paper. She wrote a bunch of numbers and slowly she returned to the normally confident kid that I know and adore.
That’s my kind of math.
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