The New Math

It’s been a long, strange journey from where I started as a teacher to the present. I say this because I’ve just finished a month of work with some wonderfully talented third grade teachers on our District’s Common Core Math curriculum maps. When I think back on the way I used to teach, I’m reminded that the “old days” were not always the “good old days”.

When I started teaching elementary school in 1987, math was a matter of following the workbook pages from page 1 to page n.  One day, kids are doing the addition facts for 12, the next day (having mastered addition and subtraction skills, of course), on to subtraction with renaming in 3 places.  No particular mathematical understanding on the part of the teacher – or the students – was necessary. Just do it.

If there is one thing I’d like to ask a former student, it is “how did you survive?”  There is possibly a support group for my former students who either learned to be mathematicians in spite of me or despite my pedagogical “skill”.

One thing I’ve learned about mathematics over time is that there’s a huge difference between the ability to remember and perform the process and the comprehension of the skill. As frustratingly painful as it can be to build understanding over process, as many times as that fragile understanding is undermined by well-intentioned helpers, it is through understanding that students become mathematics thinkers.

Measuring up to the challenge of teaching mathematics, even in elementary school has gone way beyond the ability to eek a 40-minute lesson out of a teachers’ manual.  Teachers need to understand the math themselves and become empathetic to those who cannot do so. It is a heady challenge for one who was considered a math underachiever.

As we educators unpack new Common Core Mathematics standards and uncover what it is that students really need to know in order to understand the mathematics standards, we are challenged to go beyond our old ways of teaching. It it far more important to reach levels of understanding than it is to use up all the pages in a math text.

And that’s a good thing.

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