New Hoo Hoo Math

black_goose tracks

2015-03-12 – I saw a post on Facebook today screaming about how awful the new Common Core math standards are. Like the old math standards were any good.

I haven’t kept up on math teaching, but I looked into the question pretty seriously when my boys were in school. I was even considering writing a book on the subject. It would not surprise me if the Common Core standards for math were awful. They could be awful and still be an improvement on what we had.

We just don’t seem to be very good at teaching math. A few people get it. The rest go through their lives avoiding it. Including teachers. At least once in every generation, people get concerned about it and a new standard is issued. And everyone laughs at the new standard, forgetting that the old standard was at least as bad.

If you have kids in elementary school, you are probably frustrated over the whole thing. My kids are in college now, but I had my frustrations (which is why I almost wrote a book about it), and my parents had their frustrations. When I was a kid, schools were ditching their math textbooks and starting something called “new math.” This was a response to a perceived education gap that was revealed when the Soviet Union beat the United States into space when they launched Sputnik, the first satellite.

Parents in the early sixties were up in arms, just like they are today. If you don’t believe me, listen to this song from that time (the sixties) written and sung by Tom Lehrer called New Math. [If you can’t listen to this, here’s a link to the lyrics, but the video is so much better.] We keep adopting new systems and the kids keep not-learning the math!

So, Steve, you say, you almost wrote a book about it, what’s your idea?

It’s amazing, really, how much we were taught in school that we forget. Most people have forgotten most of the American history we were fed. Even more people have forgotten world history. Quick, tell me what a gerund is (if you are under 50 you might not have even learned that). Extra points for a participle.

The smattering of knowledge that we retain from school is pretty much encapsulated in the quizzes you take on Facebook. Nothing very deep.

Except for one thing. You can read.

Reading is the one take-away that most people have from school. You may read high-minded tomes. You may read Twitter. But you can read. I think that the (relative) success our society has had in teaching reading points to a strategy for teaching math.

Reading is something you use.

Math has never been taught as something you use. But it could be.

When you learn reading, you don’t just read in reading class. You read in math class. You read in social studies. You read in cooking class. You read in art class.

And when you go home you read. Not just in homework. You read online. You read in games. You read the newspaper. You read books. You read on TV. You read signs. You read packages. You read.

Did you ever encounter a math problem in an English literature class? Didn’t think so. But you should. Math permeates our lives. Math has uses. And it’s not what you find in those artificial story problems that you hated. (Story problems, ironically, strengthen reading skills more than math skills.) If we want to do a better job teaching math, we need to use immersion techniques, like we use to teach reading. And it all needs to be built on the ways that people actually use math.


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