I’ve been pretty vocal about my frustrations with my son’s **math worksheets** in recent years. Last year I wrote a post berating myself for not being able to understand his second-grade homework, what with the confusing blocks, lines, and swoopy curves he was using to figure out a subtraction problem that I’d been taught to solve via a comparatively simple (to my eyes, anyway) column. “Is this really intended to make math *easier*?” I moaned, before confessing my fear of being completely unable to help him with future assignments.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone so far as to say MODERN KIDS’ MATH IS A NIGHTMARE and IF THIS IS COMMON CORE WELL THEN IT SUCKS, but I’ve definitely been in the “what was wrong with the old-fashioned way, gosh darn it” camp. Well, this year my son’s in third grade, and I’ve changed my tune. I was wrong. **The new methods are better, no doubt about it.**

To be clear, I’m not speaking for every teaching method in every school. I have no idea how math is being taught anywhere other than our elementary school in Eugene, Oregon. I don’t know what approaches are Common Core and what aren’t. I’m speaking only to **the “manipulatives” concepts** that I’ve seen my child working with since he’s been in second and third grade.

A manipulative, according to Wikipedia, is an object which is designed so that a learner can understand some mathematical concept by manipulating it. A manipulative could be a block or a fraction strip. Or in the case of my son’s recent homework, a number line, where problems are solved by using horizontal lines that represent “movement” to add or subtract integers.

Okay, just trying to type that out made me feel a little dizzy, so let’s be clear that I am absolutely no expert and am in fact criminally terrible at math. But you know what, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been so overwhelmed and resistant to math **if I’d learned it the way my kid is learning it**.

Here’s an example of how my 9-year-old approaches subtraction:

Now, the only way *I* know how to subtract 37 from 62 is to put numbers in a column and then borrow numbers. It would go like this: two takeaway seven, borrow one from the six so that's five, now the two is twelve; twelve takeaway seven is five. You can’t do that in your head, or at least I never could, and if you’re anything like me, it just gets headachy and confusing and AWFUL.

He’s going at it by **breaking larger numbers into manageable pieces**. I asked a teacher friend of mine to help explain this method, and here’s what she wrote after looking at my son’s work:

In the first example, the "3" does not stand alone as in the traditional algorithm -- you can see that because 37 is expressed as 10+20+7, subtracted from 62 in chunks. The second example expresses 28 as 20+8, subtracted from 100 in chunks. The basic facts are knowing that 5+2=7, and 5-3=2 (those stand for tens). Essentially this way of teaching math is less about rote memorization and number-in-number-out but understanding the 'big idea' behind even basic mathematic processes.

Here’s a number line she sent me to illustrate what she’s talking about:

At this point I generally understood what she was saying but I was still hazy on the details, so she drew another picture to help me visualize the concept of taking apart larger numbers into smaller pieces. **Here we have 45-7 expressed using rods and blocks:**

I realize many of you are probably laughing at me right about now and maybe you’re even thinking about rushing to the comment section to tell me what a total mouthbreathing idiot I am for being 40 damn years old and needing rudimentary math to be explained over and over with BLOCKS. Well, it’s like I told my son: we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and I happen to be way better with words than with numbers. I *still* didn’t quite grasp the point of the number line, until I thought of it in the following way.

If I want to subtract 37 from 62, I can break that 32 into smaller pieces, then subtract those smaller chunks bit by bit until I get my answer. As I travel along the number line, I’m physically heaving those chunks off my bigger number until I’ve subtracted it all.

That makes sense to me! I mean, look, I can subtract 37 from 62 by putting it in a column, I’m not that impaired, but I can actually sort of see it happening in my mind with the smaller pieces and the number line. **I’m understanding the idea of it rather than relying on rote memorization.**

Math was never intuitive to me when I was a kid, and I struggled with homework in a big way (those endless lists of long division problems! That annoying reminder to *show my work*!). I grew into an adult who hated math and avoided it whenever possible, because it’s never been easy for me, it’s never been enjoyable.

Now that I see how my kid blazes through his assignments, cheerily drawing number lines left and right, I wonder if my experience might have been different if I’d learned it the way he is. My love of reading has influenced my entire life — maybe if I’d actually liked math when I was a kid, I wouldn’t be so incredibly inept at it today.

There’s no way to know for sure, I guess, but I’m thrilled to see how these new methods are helping my kid. And I’m sorry for being so resistant to it for so long, simply because it came with a learning curve I had to face.

**What do you think about modern math teaching methods? Are they challenging for you? Has your kid had a positive or negative experience with them?**

*Image via goodncrazy/Flickr*

*>*

## Share this Story