Thursday, January 21, 2010

New Math vs Old Math

I used to blog for my old company, but they took the blog down. I am
not actually allowed to own the writings I put up on that blog, but as
I reference them on occasion in my writing I am putting those articles
up in my archives here for reference sake. I'll put the tag GS on those
articles noting that they were originally published on the

New Math vs Old Math

August 12, 2008 – 6:12 am by Brendan

There are those who would classify the debate between new math and old math as a debate between teaching basic math skills and teaching concepts. While there is a certain amount of merit to that opinion there is also a larger debate of which new math and old math are just a small part.

Old math people are those who would rather students be able to do the algorithms for computations that have been around for thousands of years. That is memorizing addition and subtraction facts, as well as multiplication and division facts, and many formulas for solving arithmetic problems. The idea is that students learn to do the math they will need first then later if they care to continue in the field they can figure out why.

New math people want to start by understanding why and construct how. That is build up the concept of numbers and how they relate to each other and discover algorithms for addition and subtractions, multiplication and division, and the many other formulas for solving arithmetic problems. The idea is that if students understand why they need such esoteric processes they will always remember them.

Critics of old math feel that too many students, especially minority and girls, find memorizing formulas without context to be very difficult. I don’t think this is because of an inferior intelligence but because some people just don’t remember things very well out of context. Most tips and tricks I have read about improving memory have almost always started with finding or creating a hook to hang the memory on. That is to give it some sort of context to help you remember.

Critics of new math feel that students aren’t learning the basic skills necessary to succeed in math. They feel that students spend so much time building the understanding of concepts that they don’t stop to learn the standard working algorithms. They don’t learn basic facts and thus are handicapped by not being able to recognize basic relationships between numbers, especially when using fractions or ratios.

The question is how this debate relates to this mysterious larger debate. The larger debate, which includes new math old math, phonics and whole language, teacher centered and student centered, constructivism and direct instruction, and others is the debate between classical and reform education.

Next week I will write about the differences between classical and reform education.

Some sources for further reading on the math wars, definitely not a comprehensive list. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7


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