Whatever Happened to New Math, anyway?

Whatever happened to “New Math?”

I remember eighth grade because it was the year that America rolled out a new approach to learning called New Math. It was an epic failure in my small, mostly rural school. Why? It wasn’t “normal” math.

There were ideas such as Base 2 and pictographs of odd squiggly lines that looked like hieroglyphics. The teacher hated New Math. Our parents hated New Math. So, it could only follow that so did my classmates and I.

I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect no professional development existed for the teacher in my small high school. So, we pushed our way through a year in a book that seemed to make no sense to anyone.

I imagine no one was more frustrated than the teacher who faced our quizzical faces every day.

Eventually, we were handed back our old, tattered texts with all the prior years of student names written neatly in a column so we wouldn’t mix books up or claim one that wasn’t ours. We went back to writing out answers to decontextualized procedures we had copied on Blue Horse lined notebook paper, mindlessly memorizing math steps, and replicating responses to problems from examples embedded in the text. Most of us never thought deeply about math because we could add, subtract, multiply and divide using mindless procedures that never allowed us to do much more than that. We were so dependent upon the formulas.

Whatever happened to New Math?

Today, much of what teachers tried to introduce in the 1960s and again in the late 80s is considered effective math teaching by mathematicians and math educators who understand what is essential to truly becoming math literate. They know that memorizing procedures and writing out problems that simply follow a formula doesn’t lead to mathematical understanding or thinking. They understand that interactive resources, especially manipulatives, help build conceptual understanding which is foundational to using math well. They come from a philosophy that mathematical thinking ideally pushes a complexity of understanding critical to deep learning processes in math.

So why is much of math teaching today still focused on learning math just about in the same way I learned math with the exception of that one short 8th grade stint? Why do we still focus on procedures that take so much time kids get little computational thinking, conceptual understanding, and complex problem-solving?

1) We know we have far too many discrete math standards specified by states and these are taught and tested with little context and little time to slow down and build conceptual understanding. That’s just one reason why the formal and informal politics of math continues to fail the nation’s learners of today.

2) We also know that generations of teachers and parents are still enamored with how they learned math. The methods of their youth from flash cards to “borrow and carry” are what they know as learning math. Changing traditions in America’s approach to learning math has been difficult if not darn near impossible.

3) Curriculum, assessment, and instruction in math needs to be imagined through a zero-based design model. This means starting from scratch. In a nation where education is politics, competency in mathematics is inaccessible to most adults, and getting any kind of agreement to change is next to impossible, there’s not much hope that the why what, and how of teaching math will shift.

4) We seldom put in the time and distance to change practice. To teach math differently means developing adult competence and understanding. It means coaching with math specialists who bring empathy to peers and not just knowledge. It means time to plan, practice, reflect, and redo the hard work of teaching math. It means commitment to resources whether it’s manipulatives or professional support.

So, the question I put on the page this afternoon?

Do we continue to admire the problem or do we do something to change the path? I can only say when I look at what our kids learn in and about math, I am reminded of something the late Bill Glasser once said, “if something isn’t working, consider that you can stop doing it.”

What math practices should we stop doing? What should we start? Your turn

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