They call it ‘new math’ but is there anything ‘new’ about it?
By: Carol Enright
Have you tried to help a student with their math homework lately? It can be confusing, frustrating and not unlike trying to read a foreign language. But – it’s just grade-school math, despite its labels of “new math” and “new, new math.”
So, what is this “new math” today’s children are learning and everyone seems to be talking about?
First off, it’s not so new.
Everyday Mathematics, the program that the Rockwood School District began using in its elementary schools about six years ago, has been around since the late 1980s.
“We sometimes have parents say, ‘This is how I learned it,’” said Stephanie Nauman, content facilitator for mathematics K-5 in Rockwood.
Investigations, which the Parkway School District has been using for about a decade, first hit schools in the 1990s.
There are differences between the programs, but they share a fundamental philosophy: Teach children several strategies to solve a math problem.
“Probably the biggest difference that parents see is just that it’s a variety of strategies for problem solving, as opposed to just one method,” Dr. Amy Spears, coordinator of mathematics for Parkway said. “I would say that’s in connection to the fact that we have a deeper understanding that students learn differently now – or learn in a variety of ways – and so this is truly trying to meet the needs of all students.”
One of those strategies is an “array,” which Spears explained using a wall calendar.
“A calendar is a grid,” said Spears. “So if I asked a kid to show me three times five, they would highlight around, basically, a rectangle that has three across and five down or five across and three down – understanding that it means that there are 15 blocks and it’s three times five.”
Another strategy is the partial-sums method, in which students add the hundreds, the tens and the ones columns separately – and from left to right – to come up with a sum. This strategy may seem completely backward to parents and others who were taught to add ones, tens and so on in a right to left sequence, carrying numbers from one column to the next.
Jacob Mohler, co-chair of the math department at Westminster Christian Academy in Town & Country, says Westminster teaches a more traditional math curriculum that focuses on “efficient ways of going about solving a problem or answering a question.”
Mohler sees the value in a more conceptual approach, but he doesn’t see a
“happy medium” for what he views as “two different philosophic camps.”
“I think the traditional school of thought is that they might pick up on the ‘whys,’ but we’re doing a bunch of ‘hows.’ In Everyday Math, they’re trying to do the ‘whys’ a lot and the ‘hows’ get pushed aside. They’re kind of extreme worlds,” Mohler said.
Dr. Matthew Fredrickson, Rockwood’s director of curriculum, explained that Everyday Math is a resource the district uses, but not its entire curriculum. Students still use traditional methods, such as flash cards to memorize multiplication tables.
“There’s a lot of fact practice built in, but we have to be careful that we are instructing children on strategies to learn their facts, and not only those drills,” Nauman said.
Rockwood began using Everyday Math in the 2006-2007 school year. Since then, Fredrickson said those students who have been exposed to the curriculum have performed significantly higher on the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) math assessment than those students who were not exposed to it. Spears said Parkway students have shown gains in their MAP scores, as well.
So, what are parents to do?
Spears tells parents to ask questions, “because the math is still the same.”
“Parents sometimes think the math is different, because they hear a phrase like ‘new math,’” Spears said. “They think the math is different, but it’s the strategies that are increasing.”