Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Math

Ainsley's in 2nd grade, and already she's doing things for homework that I feel ill-equipped to help her with.It's not that I can't give her an answer to some of these math problems. I know, for example, that if Johnny Appleseed has 36 red and green apples, and 17 are red, then 19 must be green. (Right? Check my math on that, would you?) What I got stuck on yesterday, though, was how I explain this to Ainsley when they haven't yet learned borrowing from the tens to subtract from the ones.

After stammering around for a few minutes I realized that Ainsley wouldn't have had this as a homework question if they hadn't gone over a clever way of solving it in class, so I flipped back through the pages of her math workbook to see that what the teacher wants for problems like that is for them to draw a visual represenation and count. So I was supposed to make sure Ainsley drew 36 blank apple-looking things, colored 17 of them red, and then counted the rest of them to see how many were left.

Am I a bad parent if I was sorely tempted to throw her our calculator and say, "This is how you'll figure that little problem out when you're an adult"?

When I was in school, my mom used to tell me she couldn't help me with my math homework because it was "new math." I was always baffled by that; what the heck was so new about addition and subtraction? To this day, I don't know where my mom got the idea that we were doing anything new and different in elementary math; it was all straight-forward book work and board work and I absolutely hated it.

What Ainsley does, though, really is "new math." At least, new to me. Last year when she was learning basic addition of numbers that added up to 20 or less, she was given a paper of rules to learn. I remember just memorizing, through flash cards, that 7 + 8 = 15. Ainsley's teacher drilled them and had them memorize "doubles": 7+7, 8+8, etc. Then for problems like 7+8, they're supposed to think, "Well, I just add one to 14, since 7+7 is 14, but 8 is one more than 7." A process by which I was impressed. But at the same time, I really just wanted to go, "Or, you could just memorize that 7 + 8 = 15."

Memorization is not encouraged in the "new education". It's all critical thinking and problem solving and real-world applications and blah blah blah. I'm not sure if I would have thrived in that sort of environment. I was really good at memorizing; I have a good memory and relished the joy that came from standing in front of my tenth-grade classmates and being the 2nd or 3rd person to recite the "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." speech from Julius Caesar. (Always the 2nd or 3rd, though, because the kid that goes first is just showy and pretentious.) In fact, the only part of elementary math I was really, truly gifted in was the times tables, because I could imprint that into my brain and not have to think too hard about a train going 50 miles per hour heading west and another train going 70 miles per hour heading east and where, exactly, they would meet up. But when we used to have times table competitions...I was fierce.

Under "new" math, I think I might have been a pretty poor student. I am a visual learner, though, so maybe seeing colored apples and playing with manipulatives would have done it for me. But I have a feeling no matter how the basics would have been taught to me, there would have come that moment in AP Calculus when corycaleb and I stayed after to talk to our teacher about the problem we were having with the concept of limits, which I never did get, and I walked out of the room saying, "I think this is as far as I'm going with math, and I hope to God I test out of any required courses in college."

Now, where's that calculator? I have to check my kid's 2nd grade math answers.