Fear of the Algorithm ~ The Meek Moose Dishes on New Math Part I

October seems the fitting month to discuss the horror of math class these days.  I've decided to script this block-buster out over a few posts.  Welcome to part I.

I confess to being a child of the algorithm.  I learned those process steps by heart.  I can borrow and carry and drop down like nobody's business!  And so can the parents of the kids I teach.  Most likely- so do you.  Unless you're one of those adults who say out loud where kids can hear you "I hated math in school, I was never any good at it!" (I'll get to you later.)  But for the rest of us rule followers out there- we've encountered the unspeakable beast, and been asked to adopt it and give it a forever home.

New Math.  Type that on the beast's dog license and take it for a walk.


Before you go staying home alone on Halloween, or having a slumber party with all the "popular" girls from school, or even go check out that strange noise in the basement with nothing in your hand but a toilet plunger - you need to realize this first.

It's not the math that is new.

Actually.  This is OLD math.  Seriously old.  Like, the beginning of time sort of old.  Ok- maybe not that old- but the first time that amoeba got concerned it was being left behind and started counting splitting cells in all of its friends, that asexual micro-organism was getting fancy with numbers.  The algorithm came much later.  After countless trials and errors with throwing out fingers and discovering that drawing hay bales out one by one was inefficient and slow.

What you actually know how to do by heart is the "NEW" math.  If you ask an amoeba, anyway.

What went wrong with the whole system, and what some educational practices is attempting to change, is that when we started skipping over the part of learning how numbers work and all the cool tricks they can do, we skipped the conceptual understanding and started to memorize a procedure.

Which is why we now have these folks saying "I hate math, I was never any good at in school!"  It turns out kittens, that your rebellious nature to fight the establishment and create campaigns against PEMDAS is actually because you are a conceptual thinker.  You needed to know WHY any of these digit bits fit with those digit bits before you joined in on the crazy train of rule followers spouting off about parenthesis and where X is. Be proud of yourself.  For a second.  But you've also gotten yourself in to a fixed mindset and that's why we now have this tragedy occurring:

I weep.  Seriously.  Almost as much as the newspaper headline about the "amphibious baseball pitcher".  But as a former English major and tree frog lover- the amphibious fiasco made me more sad.  Still though.  4 out of 10 - a majority.  Number sense = 0.  This person might even have lost a few fingers in a sewing factory accident.  Fascinating backstory, truly.

Kittens, stop saying OUT LOUD in front of students (or anybody really) that you hate math. I whole heartedly support saying "I hate Brussels sprouts".  No one is getting harmed in your hating of Brussels sprouts, and in the long run- a child not wanting to eat a Brussels sprout doesn't have a lasting impact.  They aren't eating those tiny balls of dirt anyway.

However- trying to commiserate with students or adults about the dislike of a basic skill is into going to help in the classroom, or the magic kitchen table where all that homework help goes down.  May I suggest a slight shift in your language to "Let's figure this out together!"

Additionally (oooo- puntastic!) as a teacher of elementary aged children - I find it very disturbing when my colleagues talk about not being good at math.  Kindergarten: facts to ten.  First grade: facts to 18.  Second Grade: facts to 20.  Third grade: multiplication.  Fourth Grade: division.  Fifth Grade: decimals.  Am I missing the grade where they have to start talking about trigonometry?  Why are we saying things like that?  You're making Bill and Neil sad.

We know that we are a mirror to the kids.  If you show how much you fear math or don't like math, they'll model that.

We aren't taking the time to teach our student's parents.  If our students are needing direct instruction on alternative methods to managing numbers, so would our parents.  And we're skipping that bit and sending home math work and then causing world war three at the magic kitchen table.  And that's sad!  The Magic Kitchen Table should not be a war zone.  It should be all lollipops and rainbows and child parent good times. (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. But still)  If you can't take the time to directly educate your parents- this is what you're going to be faced with:

And then we force our parents to tell their kids that they don't like math.  Or that math doesn't make sense.  Or that math is the worst possible thing of all time. And then that whole mirror thing starts all over again.

I had a mother confess to me at a recent Back to School night that she hated the weekdays last year because she knew her son was going to come home with math homework.  And I don't want that.  Not every parent is willing to help with homework at night.  Not every parent has time.  So when I do have a parent that is willing to take that time- I want the experience to be one they want to repeat.  And I want it to be pleassant so that the student is reinforced in the feeling that math is a good thing.

Tuesday- on The Meek Moose- tune in for Fear of the Algorithm ~ The Meek Moose Dishes on New Math Part II where I'll be going through the steps of showing the link between the "new" math and the "old" algorithms.

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