I was scrolling through Facebook this morning when I came across the following post:
The PC government's new math curriculum is failing Alberta students. Alberta's performance in international testing is plummeting and it's because the PCs have foisted so-called "discovery math" on our students.
Instead of learning the fundamentals of mathematics – like memorizing the multiplication tables – students are encouraged to invent their own strategies and techniques to solve math problems.
Here is an example of what the “new math” looks like, compared to what used to be taught.
Visit http://wildro.se/1vq to sign a petition to oppose the new math and ‘LIKE’ and ‘SHARE’ if you think kids should learn the basics first.
I find this post and posts like them problematic for many reasons…
First of all, all of this is really not a question of “old math” vs. “new math” as much as it is a question of teaching how to successfully perform a mathematical procedure compared to teaching towards an in depth understanding of mathematical concepts. In a nutshell, “…many of the older methods do not teach math, they teach procedures.” (A quote from Brett Seatter’s previous blog “New Math, or Real Math?”) Knowing that I need to line numbers up in a certain way, start adding on the right, carry the one, add the next column, etc. does not necessarily equate to having an understanding of what is happening when that procedure is performed. What the “new math” encourages is the development of higher order mathematical thinking skills and a thorough understanding of the concepts being taught. The benefit is that when a true and in depth understanding is developed, those concepts can be transferred and applied to novel situations in the future.
This particular Facebook post implies that the “new math” doesn’t teach the “fundamentals of mathematics” and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The “new math” continues to expect that elementary students will learn their “basic facts” (multiplication tables, etc.). education.alberta.ca/media/8394320/q-a_teach_eng.pdf The one thing that the post does get right is that students are encouraged to be creative problem solvers and to use strategies and techniques that work for them. Our classrooms are filled with unique and diverse students. The “new math” provides flexibility for students who learn and understand concepts in a variety of ways. Rather than saying to students “You must do it this way, this is the only way”, we are offering them a variety of strategies, encouraging them to try them all (including the “old way”), and then allowing them to choose the strategies that make the most mathematical sense to them. As a parent, and as a teacher, it thrills me to know that my children and students are in an environment where innovative and creative thinking are being fostered and not stifled.
“Old math” vs. “new math” has recently become a political speaking point that isn’t based on mathematical pedagogy or a sound understanding of it. Instead, certain political parties are using this particular issue to attack their rivals in a time of political unrest. Obviously, political parties are trying to attract potential voters based on this issue. The unfortunate thing is that there are massive misconceptions among the public about what the “new math” really is, and oversimplifications, such as the image in the above post, only compound the problem more.
Imagine what would happen if political parties got involved when a new medical procedure is being implemented… At first glance, it wouldn’t make any sense at all to suggest that entering the body via the groin could repair a heart valve, or that it would be the most effective and efficient way. It would be easy to suggest that this is a ridiculous and convoluted solution to the problem. Common sense would say that repairing the heart should be done by accessing it directly through the chest… after all, the heart is right there in the chest. However, the truth is that doctors are generally in a much better position to determine the most effective methods and procedures for repairing the body than either the public or the politicians are, as they are the professionals who have given their life to the study of medicine. Of course there needs to be checks and balances in the system, but a certain level of respect can and should be afforded to the professionals in the field.
In the world of education, the relationships between parents and teachers, as well as the public and the teaching profession, needs to be one of mutual respect. Both parents and teachers (and the public and the profession) have vested interests in the students that are involved and in the long-term outcomes of their education. Most members of the public, including parents, were educated under the “old math”. Because of that, and through no fault of their own, that is what their experience is limited to. Admittedly, if your background is in the “old math”, the new math can seem convoluted and confusing and appear to require a lot of unnecessary extraneous steps to solve what appears to be a straightforward problem. Herein lies the responsibility of teachers and the educational system; we need to clearly explain what it is that is being done and what is achieved by doing this. We need to show understanding and be willing to offer explanations when there are questions. We need to remember that at some point the “new math” was new to us too and that we had questions of our own.
The reality is that the “old math” vs. “new math” issue is not unique to Alberta; mathematical education is shifting elsewhere as well, and along with the change comes questions. The questions should be welcomed! The questions cause us all to pause and think and make sure that we are headed in the right direction. Ultimately we likely all want the same thing; students who are learning what they need to learn in order to be successful and contribute to society in a positive way.
This blog and resources website has been developed through the work of various AISI coaches in PHRD. The lead collaborative teachers for the 2015/2016 school year, Cheryl Frose, Christine Quong and Tammy Tkachuk will continue to update this site. If you have resources you would like to share or would like to contribute to the blog, please contact us.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.