New doesn’t always equal bad

One of the hot topics in elementary school these days is Singapore math, or what people commonly call “new math.” In short, Singapore math teaches kids mathematical concepts in three ways: concrete, pictoral, and abstract. “Old math” — or, the way most current elementary parents were taught — was largely abstract, putting a focus on rote memorization and not as much with understanding the whys behind the concepts or how numbers can be manipulated once you understand place-value concepts. New math aims to add these other approaches in an effort to get kids to understand the meaning behind the math calculations they are doing.

Parent reaction to new math is often negative and very vocal. Part of it is that it’s often difficult to help your kids with homework when you know one way to do a math problem, but that’s not the approach the homework is asking for, leaving you feeling helpless as a parent. And one weakness is that there’s not much effort to educate parents about the new math approach, leaving frustrations high for both parents and kids.

But I think part of it, too, is the fact that many parents refuse to see value in anything out of their comfort zone — or rather, different from what they learned themselves — and they do not give new math concepts a fair shake. They are quick to declare that it’s “the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen” and “This is not math, this is garbage.” (Two direct quotes from a friend’s FB post on the topic.)

And what’s even better is when these people criticize the new-math approach, then a few sentences later talk about how they themselves are “bad at math.” Well, if that’s the case, then rote memorization DIDN’T do the trick for them, did it? Should we want better for our kids, even if (especially if!) it means taking a different approach than what you did in your own education?

I think if most parents took a few minutes to look at their kids’ homework with an open mind, they might see that this approach really holds some value and shouldn’t be brushed off just because it’s different from previous methods. A big part of new math is knowing how to do manipulations with numbers — which many adults do all the time in everyday life.

Let’s say I need to figure out a 15% tip on dinner, but I don’t have any scrap paper handy to do the exact calculation the old-fashioned way. And we’ll just pretend I don’t have access to a calculator, either. Well, I don’t know right off how much 15% of my total is, but I DO know how to calculate 10% easily, then I halve that amount and add it to my 10% calculation. Voila — I’ve just figured out 15%, but I didn’t do it the traditional math way — I did it using the new-math approach.

Another example: The other day, I blanked out on what 11×11 was. So I did 11×10 in my head first, because I knew that right off, then added the remaining 11 to it to get my final answer. Yes, I blanked out on what I once had memorized, but I still reached the answer I needed because I knew how best to manipulate the numbers. So much of everyday life math is done in your head — often there’s not time to pull out paper to write it out or even grab a calculator. Knowing how to manipulate numbers is a useful skill to have.

And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. So far all of The Big Sis’s teachers have said they still teach concepts the old way in addition to the new way, that some kids are more comfortable with one method while other kids are better at another way. So why not offer an additional tool to students so our own kids don’t grow up proclaiming to others that they too are “bad at math”?

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