Thursday, January 10, 2008

Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth

Seattle television meteorologist M. J. McDermott examines what's wrong with the way schools teach basic arithmetic skills.


  1. I love this woman and I want to bear her children.
    I have had to struggle to teach my kids the basics. You just have to know that 7 x 8 is 56.
    Every time.
    Once you learn it and know it, you can move on.

    Double points for using algorithm in a sentence.

  2. I think I lost 10 IQ points watching that.

    The worst thing, to me, is that by the time you work your way through most of those methods, you still have no idea why they work. You have to struggle through the problem every time, and the number of steps increases, not linearly, but exponentially with successively more difficult problems.

    Oh, wait, you just use a calculator for that. Has anyone read one of Asimov's short stories that was part of the set leading up to Foundation, where the guy shows up who has worked out how to do basic arithmetic without benefit of a computer? Scary parallels there.

  3. Monster, is it just a coincidence that we were talking about this kinda stuff last night? I try to help my daughter with her homework by teaching her problem solving methods that I was taught, but sometimes she just gets more confused because it is not the same thing she is taught in school.

  4. The frustrating thing about "use a calculator" is that if you don't have the ability to judge GIGO. Once upon a time, when I was in fast food management, I had this conversation with a cashier:

    Cashier: "Is this right?"
    Monster: "What?"
    C: "The cash register says I'm supposed to give $45.38 change."

    The cash register displayed at bottom of the screen:
    TOTAL: 4.62
    AMT TEND: 50.00
    CHANGE: 45.38

    M: "How much money were you given?" (Pointing to $5 bill on the front of the cash register.)
    C: "Five dollars."
    M: "How much money did you tell the cash register you were given?" (Pointing to "AMT TEND: 50.00" on screen.)
    C: "Fifty dollars."
    M: "Then that isn't right."

    As a result of that debacle, I'd train cashiers not to use the AMT TEND button.

  5. No, Chase. It's not a coincidence. I had seen this video before, and our conversation encouraged me to find it for you.

  6. Wayne,

    The Asimov story was about Technician Aub, "The Feeling of Power".

  7. For those who are interested, this fight against nonsense-math texts has been going on for over a decade.

    Mathematically Correct

    "This web site is devoted to the concerns raised by parents and scientists
    about the invasion of our schools by the New-New Math
    and the need to restore basic skills to math education."

  8. If you're looking for the best K-12 math texts for kids, I strongly recommend the Key-To series by Key Curriculum and/or Saxon Math. We used Key-To for the earlier grades and switched to Saxon for the later grades.

  9. The days of true arithmetic are all pretty much becoming folklore. You have your textbooks that describe how to perform methods, whether these shown methods were how parents were taught to me is not the major issue. Although there is questioning to the methods and their effectiveness. Clearly, as children have become more calculator dependent so has society, saying that it is okay to not learn the basics, but it is okay to cheat. Yes using a calculator is quicker. In the case of these children its nice to know they can operate a calculator, thats great. I'm pretty sure a three year old if instructed could as well, but do they understand the fundamentals?
    Children who rely on their calculators, especially early on in elementary school never catch on the the true meaning of multiplication and division. I was one of those children that learned to perform all of these fun techniques, I was also one of those children who never took the time to remember the multiplication table, but I was always able to reconstruct it through addition, it is from this that I gradually learned to memorize it. Why? I never needed to. If you understand the basics in mathematics you should be able to perform simple methods without a calculator, or simple recollection of a number. Its fine that kids will know that 9X9=81, how many of those same children will become stumped or reach for their calculator when you make it 90X9?
    This is a moment that I strongly believe parents who learned it the old fashion way should enforce it, even if the school is not. Perhaps when you are helping your child with their homework, take away the calculator, and only allow it for them to review their possible mistakes. This would encourage the development of mathematically coherent children, rather than a kid who is really good with a calculator. In the future there is no question in my mind which type of child I would have working for me.

  10. Welcome William K,
    We had one calculator in our house. The wozzle ate all the buttons.


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