This is an updated version of an essay published in February 2010. As the debate over Common Core (sorry Florida, but I am not afraid to say the name) continues and the beginning of testing season starts in our schools, I thought about when I wrote this essay so long ago. I am in support of Common Core and the idea behind better methods of teaching the basics to our children with a unified curriculum. New Math, Old Math, or New Math Standards, all three will being our students to the same answer, however an open mind will see that there are not only different ways to approach a problem but there are different approaches to teaching the equations as well. My father blamed the teachers for teaching me a “stupid” way to “do” math. And, I hear other fathers say the same thing today. It is still MATH. How about we teach our children to be open minded by being open minded ourselves, and take the time to understand the newer approaches than to condemn MATH. Division is hard.
Skipping Down the Slippery Side of the Slope: Numbers are numbers
Naples Daily News
Thursday, February 4, 2010
“Kids today, they have it so easy. We never had what these kids have today.”
We’ve heard this line before. “They”, the proverbial people who say things (like my dad), said the exact words when I was a kid. And, just like kids today, when “they” (my dad) pointed out how easy I had it, I turned up my nose and rolled my eyes.
It’d be a lie if I stated that I walked seven miles to school in the snow, uphill (both ways). The truth—our grade school happened to be down the block. But, I know that when my father was a kid, he walked uphill to everything; because he said so. And, because I had it so good, my father never helped me with my homework. Now, I know why. It had nothing to do with his going uphill.
It’s true, when I was little we didn’t have the internet connecting us to the world, or flat screen 3D TVs streaming out favorite shows on command. Our television (and that is singular, for we shared one between everyone in the household) offered the meager choice of three network stations and one local access; a fact that my daughter can’t relate.
I recall my father pointing out that when he was young they didn’t even have a TV. They had a radio. I imagine my grandfather telling my dad that when he was a kid they didn’t have radios, but that they read books, and I am sure that his father pointed out he only had candles to read by and got the news from papyrus scrolls, smoke rings, or cave paintings; it goes on and on.
However, there is one thing kids, no matter the generation, will always possess. Me, my daughter, her grandfather, and his ancestors, as children we share one thing in common—MATH.
There is a sequence to learn math, something everyone has to endure; first you must learn addition, then subtraction, and then memorize multiplication tables so you can divide, and there lies the great division, and the reason for many meltdowns in many households during the past century. It is true. And I know the reason—why. DIVISION.
The basics of division will make sense in your head, but to do it, that’s a whole other thing. Division has its own signs; its own language. There is a series of steps to learn the language, and only after you master the language is when “they” will allow you the use of a calculator. Kids today aren’t allowed calculators, though there is one on their phones. A kid will never ask a parent for help using a smart phone, it is usually the other way around, but because division is hard they ask their parents for help with their homework, no problem, unless you were born in the 60’s and 70’s.
When my daughter was learning division, and like all kids, she didn’t like it. It is not easy. At first, helping her wasn’t so bad. Twelve divided by three is four. Easy. But then comes LONG division. You know—the process needed to divide thousands by hundreds, and because its homework rounding up does not count.
One night my daughter showed me her homework with twenty math questions (they only do the odd numbered ones). She had a problem with question number three, and she was clearly frustrated. As a good parent, I watched her do the equation on a piece of scratch paper, ready to gently guide her if needed, but she was doing it all wrong. She had X’s lined up along the top of the equation, and other little tricks off to the side. Strange.
She threw her pencil says that she will never learn how to do it, and from the quiver in her voice I could tell she was on the verge of tears. Tenderly, I pulled the scratch paper toward me. With a smile I showed her how to do it. Unknowingly I solved the problem by doing something so unheard of, so heinous, so despicable, the child screamed! I used SHORT division.
“Mama. You’re doing it all wrong! That’s ‘New Math’ and we don’t use that anymore. We use ‘Organic Math’. I’m not supposed to do it that way.”
Suddenly I was flooded with anxiety. The same anxiety I felt long ago when I learned that not only do numbers go from zero to infinity, but that they do the same thing the other way, only in negative.
My father’s voice reverberated against the halls of my memory banks, I can hear the agony in his voice as he leaned over my shoulder and my homework (why back when), explaining that he could not help me with my homework because what I was doing was ‘New Math’, and he did ‘Old Math’. He yelled, “You kids today have it so easy. Wait until your mother gets home—she likes math!”
Now, years later, all grown up and slightly ahead of the curve, I can’t help my child with her homework because ... I was taught ... New Math! Which, doesn’t count…like rounding up.
Oh the conundrum! My generation has done it! We can claim the honor of having something every other generation of children will never have or ever will. We’ve come full circle, and if we were to divide the circumference of that circle, 3.141592…, which goes to infinity mind you, by three we would come up with roughly the same answer, but people burdened with ‘New Math’ would take a whole different path to get to the same answer, which is ... does it really matter anyway?
“Honey,” I said to my daughter, “if we do it your way or my way, it the same answer.”
She blinked. She thought. She said. “But it is still wrong.”
I blinked. I thought. I said, “Well, yes and no.”
Then I thought some more; she was learning a process and not just a quick way to arrive at the answer. So I said, “How about we wait for Daddy to come home, and in the meantime why don’t you show me what that little “X” means.”