The Screeching Owl

This Sounds Like New Math, Again

Posted by David Fisher on 26th October 2010

I remember sometime in junior high school (that’s middle school now) a math teacher was instructing us in the fine ways of new math.  We wondered what made it new.  It wasn’t the textbooks, the problems, the tesst, or anytisng else we, the students, could determine to be new.  The teacher, when asked, had difficulty telling us what made this math new math.  By the way, the year was 1977.

Fast forward to today.  Math seems to be new once again.  It’s not that we’re teaching any concepts that have just been developed within the last few years. Numbers still obey mathematical properties as they’ve always done.  Fractions are still fractions, graphs are still graphs, etc.  However, something is stil new.

Now that we’ve almost completed the first trimester with our new math series (the series doesn’t constitute the new math), I think I’ve finally figured out what’s new in math once more.  Here it is: students now have to think.

Yes, I know that sounds bizarre.  Let me explain:  When we learned division, for example, we were taught to find out how many times the divisor went into the dividend.  We often refer to this method of division as the ‘goes into’ method of division.  Today students are asked to figure out how many times a divisor can be subtracted from a dividend, what is the partial quotient that is found from that subtraction, and what is the new dividend.  Then, that process of repeated subtraction continues once again.  Algebra is no different now.  New properties are here.  Have you ever used the subtraction property of equality?  I didn’t think so.  Commutative, associative, distributive absolutely; the other, no way.

That’s what I mean by the students now have to think.  Instead of learning a system to solve math problems, students are now being asked to think about how the numbers relate to each other.  Students are being asked to take problems apart and put them back together in ways that they’ve not done before.  Brains are being retrained to think, not just memorize.  There is new terminology to learn, new steps to follow and use, and new ideas to share.

Where does that leave you, the parents, when it comes to helping your child with his/her math homework?  The same place it left our parents when they tried to help us.  Use what you know about math with your child and let him/her decide if your method makes sense.  There will always be more than one way to solve a math problem, and those ways will most likely involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

I guess some things really do stay the same.

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