About one month ago I was going crazy trying to help my twelve year old daughter with a probability math homework problem. I became quite disappointed in myself because I am an educator and I just couldn’t quickly figure out this problem. As a parent, I did my best to help her come up with ways to use resources available for her to figure out the problem on her own. Instead of getting angry at this “new math,” as some parents call it, I actually became quite excited that my daughter was doing such complex math problems, instead of the low-level computational problems I had when I was a kid.
As parents we have quite a bit of “unlearning” to do. There has been recent efforts to strengthen the mathematics curricula in our nation’s schools from basic through more advanced levels. Our children need to be better prepared for the 21st century. They need to be able to combine, adapt, and use math knowledge in ways we can hardly imagine. Business and industry leaders are looking for new employees who have good communication skills and the ability to work in a team. As parents, we would have a very difficult time if we had to go back in time and take the math tests our children are taking in school today. Why? The tests we took as children tended to evaluate only low-level computational problems. The tests today require higher-level cognitive skills and understanding. Learning math today is much more than knowing the “facts” and number operations.
In the past, we worked through rows of problems in math textbooks. It emphasized rote activities. We were passive receivers of rules and procedures without knowing what the rules and formulas meant. No one ever dared ask about the logic of what we were doing. What mattered back then was getting the right answer. Yes, of course, we did have word problems when we were younger, but they were really computations in disguise. We would just turn it into a number sentence, an equation, and then follow the rules we were taught.
In classrooms today, learning math is a sense making experience. For our children to be successful in math class, they need to be active participants in creating knowledge. If you walk into a classroom today, you will see the whole class and small groups talking about and demonstrating how they went about solving the math problems. The emphasis is less on getting the correct answer and more on being resourceful in finding ways of solving problems.
Some parents think we do not teach the students the pencil-and-paper shortcuts we learned when we were younger. We DO teach them, but we just don’t rush into it. We would rather students do things the long way first! Why, you ask? Our math programs must build a foundation of conceptual understanding first before the algorithms are introduced. In other words, we have to work concretely and manipulatively first. Students today use concrete, hands-on materials when they encounter new concepts. Later they will learn the symbolic shortcuts we used when we were younger. It is more important that students describe and demonstrate how they went about solving math problems instead of focusing on getting the correct answer. Our goal is to get them thinking like mathematicians. Today, children in math classes generally work in pairs and groups and they do a great deal of their math mentally. Research shows that students’ working together helps with their understanding. When you walk by a small group trying to discuss ways to figure out an answer, you hear: “I have an idea”, “Wait, wait I got a different plan”, “Let’s try your way, then my way”, and “But that does not make sense!” During group problem-solving, teachers are actively listening to students’ reasoning which, in turn, helps them better understand the students’ thinking. Keep in mind that there is still time in the classroom for students to work independently and teachers know how important it is to work independently.
I understand that some parents feel quite uncomfortable helping children with their math homework. Math homework looks different and the amount of math homework is also different. Educators know from research that students need activities and tasks that allow for a deeper understanding of the math. These tasks may take longer to solve and that is why fewer problems are assigned. I see many parents upset and who want to blame the current math programs out there such as Everyday Math, Math Trailblazers, and LL Teach Communicator Mathematics because parents do not see a textbook going home which is full of rows of computational problems.
I hope after reading my explanation of the dramatic and exciting changes in the field of mathematics, you will realize that the traditional way of teaching math is NOT what is best for our children and their future. The methods supported by our new math standards is what will prepare children to be problem solvers, effective communicators, and team-workers.
***Please post your comments and questions. I am currently working on a presentation for a math parent seminar which explains what to expect from 4th grade math. I will be providing many math tips on how to best help your child in math. I will be posting these great tips soon. Make sure to sign-up to get my blog posts delivered directly to your email box. Also, please bookmark and share my blog posts with other dedicated parents.