Renegade parents teach old math on the sly

This is another article that qualifies as a math head-scratcher for me.  Written by Jocelyn Noveck, it gives a glimpse at the efforts, attitudes, and opinions of parents caught in the crossfire of the “math wars.”

I first found the article this morning over breakfast as I read through my Huntsville Times.  The title given in the paper is “The Old Math versus The New Math,” and the subtitle is “Some parents teaching traditional skills on the sly.”

There’s a lot to the article, but it’s basically about the conflict between (some) teachers and parents.

They call it the Math Wars: The debate, at times acrimonious, over which way is best to teach kids math. In its most black-and-white form, it pits schools hoping to prepare kids for a new world against reluctant parents, who feel the traditional way is best and their kids are being shortchanged.

Both sides of the debate are presented, but it seems to lean toward the side of the parents.  Rightly so, in my opinion (but more on that later).

Victoria Morey, the parent of a third grade student: …as for the concepts-before-procedure argument, she quips: “Would you want to go to a doctor who’s learned about the concepts but never done the surgery? Would you want your doctor to say I had the right IDEA when I removed your appendix, though I took out the wrong one?”

Pat Cooney, a math coordinator in Ridgefield, Connecticut: One problem … is that parents remember math as offering only one way to solve a problem. “We’re saying that there’s more than one way,” Cooney says. “The outcome will be the same, but how we get there will be different.” Thus, when a parent is asked to multiply 88 by 5, we’ll do it with pen and paper, multiplying 8 by 5 and carrying over the 4, etc. But a child today might reason that 5 is half of 10, and 88 times 10 is 880, so 88 times 5 is half of that, 440 – poof, no pen, no paper.

When did this start?

The “Math Wars” have been playing out since at least 1989, when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a document recommending concept-based teaching – which was, the group says, distorted by critics and “exaggerated in every direction.”

“Our position is that math ought to be reasonable and kids ought to be able to make sense of it,” says Hank Kepner, president of the council and a teacher for the last 45 years.

To me, the problem is simply communication.  I have experienced teachers (and have probably been one) who have had a, “Let me be the teacher” attitude that does nothing to allay the concerns of parents.  Of course, I’ve experienced many more teachers that have the exact opposite attitude and are respected and appreciated by parents.  This problem has been around for nearly 20 years; something has kept it going.

This quote, I think, demonstrates the heart of the matter:

“There never seems to be any explanation in the workbooks,” Allison Pennell says. “And there’s no textbook to refer to.” Her son doesn’t usually need her help, but when he does, she says, “I’m such a numbskull. I don’t think I could pass fourth-grade math.”

Communication needs to be improved.  No one–the teacher or the parent–is benefiting from a situation that engenders those feelings in a parent that just wants the best for her child.