Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stupid New Math

The other day I was listening to two schoolteachers on the CBC radio. They were talking about the “new math.” I was astonished: Are people still talking about it? The new math, as you may know, was a common topic in magazines and newspaper columns back around the time of the Vietnam War, back when “people over thirty” hadn’t learned to question the authorities in our society. But as for the new math, yes, that we questioned. Parents were amused and frustrated because they couldn’t understand it, couldn’t help their children tackle their homework.

As I listened it became clear a teacher wanted to bring in a new new math—as some other provinces have done—and it became very clear the young idealist hadn’t learned from recent history. While the other teacher was opposed, I listened as an expert young authority enthusiastically explained how the “new math” would mean the child would try all sorts of problem solving to get the answer; I heard the same man heap scorn on the old emphasis on rote learning of basic skills. The new math, he said, was “progressive” and “creative.”

I had scorn too: for the teacher. As an historian would say, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, then you don’t know where are.” Where the teachers “have been,” for as long as I’ve been alive, is saying judgmental things about my friends from “the wrong side of the tracks.” They say the children across the tracks cannot do as well in school as rich kids because their parents don’t role model reading books at home; they say the parents cannot help their young children with homework because they work so much or aren’t motivated enough. I’m not saying I agree; I am saying school teachers agree that socio-economically challenged families are challenged in doing schoolwork—so why don’t the same teachers, to be consistent, also agree that “new math” would surely result in parents being further unable to help their children?

And where are we to find the “progressive” teachers to do this creative math? Perhaps the Vietnam years have made me too skeptical, but I ask: How many of us during Vietnam could do the progressive new-fangled “win the hearts and minds” thing? How many State Department teachers in the Mekong delta, or soldiers or marines, could manage to win the village farmers over to choosing democracy instead of communism? Not very many, not at all. And so for this new math, I suspect teachers would merely end up doing it by rote. Someone else would have to write the curriculum and plan out his or her “creative, progressive” lesson plans for him or her.

Too often extreme idealists forget the rest of us are not as progressive as they are. Decades after woman's liberation we were barely ready for the nice, not-so-Hollywood women of the Dove soap commercials. We regular folk certainly aren’t ready to creatively teach our kids the newest new math.

I remember when computers were new. I once walked into the Hudson’s Bay Company the first morning of their new cash registers. The changeover, I was told, had been the previous night. That morning I heard all their cash registers going “ba-beep, cheep, beep.” It felt weird. Progressive maybe, but weird. In time we learned to silence them.

Back then we hoped for a new, improved “paperless office.” In my day, computer consultants would come in and lay down a network and then, overnight, a business would change over to doing everything by computer. I remember reading in a Calgary newspaper about a company suing the computer experts: The company was going bankrupt from automating too fast. I’m sure the company lost their court case because the common sense practice at the time (At least, I hope it was common) was to run the new system side by side with the old paper system until you were sure it worked.

Well then. Can’t this new math be run for a time side by side with the old? Logically, if having children problem solving were so ideal, wouldn’t there already be some creative teachers out there teaching “problem solving” alongside the regular curriculum? Let them teach their fellow teachers how to do likewise. If they can.

And, if taught side by side, I ask sarcastically, wouldn’t problem solving grow to be used more and more, without needing extra energy or scorn, just as surely as children, to quote Sylvan Learning Academy, will grow to be “hooked on phonics”? (phonetics) Now I’m getting angry. You see, there is a fierce expert debate, going back to my grandparents time, on teaching literacy through either “sounding out” (phonics) or else “whole word” (memorizing) But not both. My niece Derrelynne failed to learn to read three years in a row until my sister—who role modeled reading at home—took Derrelynne out of the school that clung to the one theory, and put her into a school that used the other. The second time Derrelynne took grade three she “got it” but she was forever a year behind. Why, oh why, aren’t the experts willing to use a mixture of both theories? Have they no "street smarts?"

And as for that young expert’s heavy scorn over the radio: It might seem charming, maybe, to hear a teenage girl using scorn to summon up energy to separate from her parents or small town; it is not charming to hear such scorn in a grown adult—I find it most distasteful… Put it this way: If I was to hear an idealistic oil executive being as scornful about, say, global warming, then I would think there must be merit to the global warming theory. And vice versa.

I wish these advocates of the newest new math would respect recent history; I can imagine asking them to respect regular folks who never go to university, and then requesting the experts to venture over to meet with us, here on the wrong side of the tracks. I would say: We are the ones who slogged through the rice paddies in Vietnam so you could build your ivory towers. We don’t know fancy theories but we sure know what the ground looks like. Ask us, work with us. In your ignorant idealism, please don’t ignore us.

Sean Crawford
Middle aged,
Watching fashions and fools come round again
March 2014

~US philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who can’t remember history are condemned to repeat it.” For a more sad than comic view of how “US in Vietnam” history is repeating see my essay A Young Girl’s Guide to Wars and Drugs, archived in March 2013.    

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