Everything You Hate About Your Kid's 'New Math' May Be Wrong ​

new math children

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

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