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Why I Hate the Newest New Math

Published in ChicagoNow, February 21, 2014 (cartoon by Marcia Liss)

I’ll confess I’m no math whiz. I dropped out of helping my kids with math homework before middle school. I attribute the fact that I need a calculator to do most anything math-related to being a product of “new math” when I attended high school. Tom Lehrer nailed it in his hilarious parody (worth a watch if you’ve never seen it). Despite being a good student, I was so turned off by the curriculum that I never entered another math class after 11th grade.

So here I am trying to help my second grade granddaughter with her version of new math, and I am stuck once again. She is doing something called “division,” but it makes little sense to either of us.

The first problem isn’t too bad. We take a pile of pennies and distribute them in rows so each member of her family has the same amount. I rule out the dog in the interest of getting this done. Unfortunately, the 5 rows of pennies get pushed a bit, but after readjusting them, she counts and completes the answer sheet: 43 pennies add up to 8 for each person plus 3 left over.

Problem two tells us to use something else and divide it between 2, 3, and 4 people. I grab a handful of mini cookies from a bag, and she puts them in two rows. Then she counts and fills in the answer sheet. “Where’s the remainder?” I ask. “I ate it,” she replies, “so I put zero.”

OMG! Now we are down to real problems with no props. She has no idea how many times 3 can go into 14 and what the remainder would be. So I foolishly ask, “Well, what’s 3 times 4?” I’m thinking when she sees 12 is close to 14, we can get the right answer. She tells me they haven’t learned multiplication yet. I sigh and tell her to wait until Mom gets home.

I understand that this math curriculum is designed to help kids learn the principles behind the basic math operations, just like my encounter with “new math” intended when I was in high school. It is a spiraling curriculum, meaning they will come back to division over and over again. At some point, she will either get it or become a math-hater like her grandmother.

It’s pretty depressing to have a 7-year-old declare that she is extremely worried about the upcoming math test because she doesn’t understand division. She fears it will be on the test. Even though it was not, she spent hours worrying about something she didn’t understand. It doesn’t matter to her that the curriculum will come back to it at some point. For now she feels discouraged.

“Grandma, I’m bad at math,” she cries. Not her fault. Second graders are not abstract thinkers, so the entire premise of this newest new math feels developmentally off to me. Instead, I think, let her memorize those times tables and maybe she will feel like math is her friend once more.

Math whizzes out there, please enlighten me. I hate to see her going down the same path I traveled.


by Laurie Levy
Laurie Levy  (83 of 127).jpg
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