It's Elementary, My Dear

Or at least it used to be.

This column originally appeared on . It has been updated and is running again in response to a recent push by local educators to get parents involved in math initiatives. 

I used to do well in math. I have an (unfortunately) very distant memory of getting A's in elementary school math. But that was a long time ago,.

It starts out innocently enough. I’ll be making dinner, screeching James Taylor into the spatula, minding my own off-tuned business, when I hear IT. The eight words that bring instant alarm and dread to my gut.

“Mom, I need help with my math homework.”

How hard can sixth grade math be? I was eleven when I graduated that particular grade. I can do this. I know I can.

I stride determinedly--confidently even--to the dining room table, sit down and read the directions on the lab sheet. I’m already ready to admit defeat. I might as well be looking at assembly directions to an armoire from IKEA.

I glance at the first problem. Wait, this looks familiar. I remember how to do this. Things are looking up. I grab the pencil, do the calculation, twirl the pencil deftly (and quite skillfully I must admit) and triumphantly show my son the answer. Hero mom.

My son looks at me as if I’ve grown , which, in truth, is a look I get more and more with each developing hormone.

What follows is an honest to goodness conversation we have repeatedly in my household. It is not, I repeat, not, made up for anyone’s enjoyment. Because, really, no one finds enjoyment in this.

Mom: Here is the answer to problem one.
Son: I know the answer, Mom, that’s not the question.
Mom: Huh? What do you mean?
Son: I don’t know.
Mom: Well, this is the answer. I’ll show you again how to do it.
Son: You don’t know, Mom. You didn’t do it right.
Mom: Yes, I did. This is the correct answer, right here. Write it down.              

Son: That’s not how we did it in class.
Mom: How did you do it in class?
Son: I don’t know.
Mom: (Deep breath)
Son: We have to show our work.
Mom: I did show the work. It’s right here. Here it is. Write it down.
Son: You don’t know, Mom. That’s not how it looked in class.
Mom: How did it look in class?
Son: I don’t know.

One exceedingly frustrating hour later it’s clear. He doesn't know and I most certainly don't know. And dinner is overcooked.

I know there are many parents whose evenings run parallel to mine, mostly because I hear them screaming when I drive by their homes. Math is most definitely not the same it was when the nuns taught it to me back at St. Gregory the Great Elementary School in Virginia Beach.

My friends who are math educators tell me, (while graciously pouring me a second glass of wine and covertly removing all sharp instruments from within my reach) that the most important exercise is to become familiar with the math vocabulary, usually located in the back of those evil math texts. Because, guess what? Math literally IS a different language, and the first step to learning a new language is to learn the vocab, which is much different than it was back when I was busy memorizing times tables.

And that's about the only tip I can give you. I'm sorry to say that's all I got in my how-to-survive-today's-math arsenal. I'm flying my white flag, I surrender. Pass the Chardonay, please.

So this week’s questions goes out to parents and educators. What advice can you give to bridge the gap between parents and students when it comes to today’s math? What assistance do your schools provide? What resources (schools, classes, tutoring, math clubs etc.) exist to help students who struggle with math, or excelling students move forward at a faster pace? What tips can you give students to strengthen their math skills?

Phillip Hultman March 05, 2012 at 07:52 PM
This is one of the big reasons why the United States is falling way behind in math compared with other countries(South Korea, Japan, Germany etc,,,). But we always try to reinvent the wheel because God forbid we adopt other successful ways of teaching Math from the leading countries. No wonder we see more and more brain power coming from overseas to do the work because the failed US system could not provide the specialized work force, at the end we are going to be reduced to a nation of o workforce of burger flippers. And you may think that being in an affluent town like Brookline would make a difference? Well in our little world yes, sort of, but in the real world other countries kick our butts big time. So much for having plenty of economic resources and keep taxing on Brookline properties with the chimera of quality education.
william March 05, 2012 at 08:04 PM
When we polarize "new" and "old" math in the fashion that it seems to be in the media I am forced to think the proponents of the "old math" are more in favor of computational skills than conceptual understanding and I do not remember it that way when I was in school. I remember both stressed. What I do see as different in the 21st century is the following: * What we know about mathematics pedagogy * A desire to have all students succeed (I did well in math but many (perhaps most) of my peers did not) * The skills students need now are different than when I graduated * Technology * Parental influence * The general education level of the US population * Speed of communication and prevalence of information (Think of the ease of obtaining a positive or negative research study on anything) I expect that debate on mathematics will continue long after I am gone but I don't think the idea of a good mathematics students being able to do the math and know the math will. To me these are linked and timeless.
Ace March 06, 2012 at 01:22 PM
I'm seeing more young adults enter the workforce with a great understanding of concepts, but without the ability to perform quick calculations. My brother made his kid memorize all the combinations of cents to get to a dollar (33/67, 34/66, etc.) and his kid was the ONLY one who could make change without needing the register calculation. Ideally, there should be a balance of both. Just as things have started to swing back from from "total language" to an emphasis on proper spelling and usage, the calculation part of math needs a place in the curriculum. Frankly, I do not have time to wait while a 17 year old "reasons" the discount amount when I hand her a 10% off coupon!
Heidi March 06, 2012 at 05:47 PM
@Ace, I agree 100 percent (which I can quickly calculate thanks to years of memorization in Elementary school!) We need a balance of both. With the current math curiculum there is a reliance on the parents to teach the kids times tables and "old" math ways of calcuation. The problem is, most parents don't know they are supposed to be doing this, or are not equipped to do so.
caro March 08, 2012 at 04:00 PM
OMG Adrienne, you make me laugh!


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