Basics are back

Math basics are back in the new report issued by the influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The Wall Street Journal (pay to read the whole thing) reports:

The nation’s math teachers, on the front lines of a 17-year curriculum war, are getting some new marching orders: Make sure students learn the basics.

In a report to be released today, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which represents 100,000 educators from prekindergarten through college, will give ammunition to traditionalists who believe schools should focus heavily and early on teaching such fundamentals as multiplication tables and long division.

The council’s advice is striking because in 1989 it touched off the so-called math wars by promoting open-ended problem solving over drilling. Back then, it recommended that students as young as those in kindergarten use calculators in class.

NCTM’s approach heavily influenced textbooks and education school courses, setting off a parent rebellion against “fuzzy math.”

The council says its earlier views had been widely misunderstood and were never intended to excuse students from learning multiplication tables and other fundamentals.

. . . Francis Fennell, the council’s president, says the latest guidelines move closer to the curriculum of Asian countries such as Singapore, whose students tend to perform better on international tests. There, children focus intensely on a relative handful of topics, such as multiplication, division and algebra, then practice by solving increasingly difficult word and other problems.

The 1989 standards tried to promote understanding of math concepts by downplaying “right answers” in favor of estimation.

For example, an elementary-school student tackling the problem 4,783 divided by 13 should instead divide 4,800 by 12 to arrive at “about 400,” the 1989 report said. The council said this approach would enable children using calculators to “decide whether the correct keys were pressed and whether the calculator result is reasonable.”

By 2000, NCTM was moving away from its focus on calculator use instead of “pencil-and-paper proficiency.”

The story goes on to describe the success of the very unfuzzy Singapore Math at a heavily minority, low-income school in Massachusetts.

Kitchen Table Math compares the NCTM’s new curriculum focal points to the sequence of topics in Singapore Math.

Better late than never, writes Darren, a high school math teacher. “It only cost a single generation of students who couldn’t learn math.”

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Comments

  1. My gut feel is that this is the correct move, and serves as part of a return to sanity in math education.

    But, the larger issue is the fact that the educational establishment rushes from one educational fad to another, with no real research.

    I do not count small jargon stuffed studies as real research.

  2. The council says its earlier views had been widely misunderstood and were never intended to excuse students from learning multiplication tables and other fundamentals.

    But that’s exactly how they were used and everybody knew it at the time. Why did it take 17 years for the teacher to figure it out? A whole generation’s math competence retarded. Disgraceful. Watching that fiasco go down convinced me no one in public education had an IQ above the 50th percentile.

    Lots of Kumon franchisees will be upset by this revelation.

  3. I just came back from “Family Math Night” at my daughters HS. I can assure you that the local Kumon centers, which both my daughters attend, have nothing to worry about.

    The Family Math Night was just one big happy family. Interestingly enough, not counting the people who were there to support the teachers, I suspect there were less than 6 or 7 parents there to hear what they had to say. All seemed quite pleased with what they heard and some parents mentioned how they got lost in the teaching of “traditional” math and wish they had an Investigations program.

    One supporter was the head of the Math Department at the Colorado School of Mines. Count me totally mystified. What was even more troubling was how brainwashed the staff is that they’re doing the right thing. I don’t know what’s in the water, but I’m bringing my own next time I visit.

    Chris

  4. Wayne Martin says:

    > The Family Math Night was just one big
    > happy family. Interestingly enough, not
    > counting the people who were there to support
    > the teachers, I suspect there
    > were less than 6 or 7 parents there to hear what
    > they had to say. All seemed quite pleased
    > with what they heard and some parents
    > mentioned how they got lost in the teaching
    > of “traditional” math and wish
    > they had an Investigations program.

    This is one reason I don’t put much stock in the argument that parents should direct the schools where their children go (or words to that effect).

  5. or maybe that just illustrates selection bias at work. Who else would waste time at a family math night run by the school except those that agree with what’s being taught? Everyone else is probably at busy at home trying to undo the math damage inflicted at school during the day.

  6. Math in my high school was very well taught. It actually was based in a fundamental understanding of theory, especially Calculus. What did I find when I got to college? Calculus for the non-math students that asked for a lot of memorization. Memorization was never a part of the curriculum in high school. Those friends of mine that went on to get math degrees found that their understanding of theoretical mathematics was more helpful — but there is a subset of college math that wanted to teach those without that skill set and relied on memorization — something I had know skills in.

    Asian countries tend to memorize more — in part because of the fundamental way that language is learned in Asian countries. Western languages have a few building blocks that can be repurposed a million different ways. So memorization isn’t particularly key. Asian languages have millions of building blocks that must be committed to memory with only a handful of ways these fundamentals can go together.

    Memorization is strong part of the interactions between child and parent in the home learning parts of development. A common tool in Japanese households, for instance, is to have bath time (usually taken with a parent) accompanied by charts of and educational tools to aid in memorization.

    Memorization is also a fundamental part of the work world in many Asian countries — its not acceptable to say “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.” When the question is asked, you must know.

    International testing assumes a universal culture. There isn’t one.

  7. Indigo Warrior says:

    Both memorization and conceptual understanding are vital, pillars to mathematic competency. There must be some sort of balance.

  8. Memorization needs to occur in elementary schools; conceptual understanding needs to occur in Algebra. The problem is that many kids continue on the memorization path in Algebra and don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing, so we have kids in Calculus making simple algebra mistakes because they were just “going through the motions” in 8th grade Algebra. Part of it is the fault of the teachers because they either rely on textbooks that don’t teach concepts, or they believe that kids in middle school can’t handle conceptual thinking. Kids in middle school can handle a lot more than we given them credit for. If we don’t teach them concepts they’ll never get over the hurdle into conceptual thinking and struggle with math all through high school.

  9. Wayne Martin says:

    > Memorization needs to occur in elementary
    > schools; conceptual understanding needs to
    > occur in Algebra.

    This is such a key point in this discussion. I wonder why it gets lost so easily?

  10. Indigo Warrior says:

    Memorization needs to occur in elementary schools; conceptual understanding needs to occur in Algebra.

    I beg to differ. Both need to occur at all ages. Kids in elementary school (or at least some of them) can handle more than we give them credit for.