Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More from Math Coach . . . Know the Warning Signs of Inferior Education

Back to reading more from Math Coach, A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Succeed in Math, by Wayne Wickelgren.

Wickelgren, bemoaning the new math curriculum which had been introduced just before his daughter entered sixth grade, said he was able to identify the problem quickly because he knew the warning signs of inferior math education "...despite the claims of the teachers that this new program would be superior to the previous one."

At first, according to Wickelgren, he tried "to counter the new math agenda."

When that failed, he "implemented a plan to teach (his daughter) the math she would suddenly not be taught in school."

Wickelgren went on to say that their "stopgap measures prevented any long-term damage."

Here is one last paragraph written by Wickelgren on the subject of inferior math education and preventing its damage:

"Oddly, the methods that so frustrated (his daughter) and left (his son) far behind are part of the latest fashion in math education, one based on the 1989 Standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) -- which I call Standards math. Virtually all parents of children going to school in the present era will encounter teachers and other educators influenced by Standards math. Thus, it is critical to understand these methods and how they might shortchange your child's math education."

Three things that I want parents to notice:

1. Wickelgren was able to quickly identify the problem because he knew what "Standards math" involved. This is where most of us as parents unintentionally drop the ball (I was one many years ago myself.) and this is when most of our children "get off the track." And sadly, we might not even know they are off the track because we are lulled by the teachers' promises of a better way coming.

2. He tried to counter the new math. (more on this later) I think this is what most of us do, if we are knowledgeable enough to be able to identify the problem at the start.

3. He identified what was not being taught and intervened. He implemented a plan which taught his daughter what she would fail to learn.

My first encounter with "new math" (but I didn't know it):

Our own son, coming through high school in the late 80's and early 90's, was very smart in math, and was on a fast track. He started geometry, and quickly told me "Mom, I'm not enjoying math at all."

I looked through his geometry textbook. Geometry had been about my favorite math, and I was incredulous at what I saw, or more specifically, what I didn't see. This math did not even resemble what I expected! Students were given problems to solve but had not been taught theorems nor anything about using theorems in the proofs. Folks, that's what plane geometry is -- using/listing theorems needed to solve the problem and then (proofs) why that theorem helps get the answer. The theorems and proofs take you step by step through the problem until you get the desired solution.

I tried to explain theorems and proofs to our son and how they worked, (I guess I was at step 2 above -- trying to counter what he was learning -- but I made the mistake of using the school's textbook and I just couldn't help him. I knew our son was terribly off track. It was week two and damage had already been done. His self confidence was zero.

So I had identified a problem, although I knew nothing of "new math". And after trying to help, I had been pretty quick to identify what was NOT being taught (step 3), but my mistake was trying to counter what was being done by using his textbook as it was being taught. It just didn't work at that point because there were gaps and I couldn't fill in the gaps using that "new math" system.

And so from my experience, I will agree with Wickelgren that trying to counter what a child is learning probably won't work by following what's in the "new math" book. I needed to start all over again and teach him plane geometry the "traditional" way.

(Let me call your attention to this: It is typical of "new math" curriculum to require students to solve problems before they are exposed to the information and concepts they will need -- to give them the chance to "discover" and to build their own methods and plans. All it did was upset and confuse my smart son.)

I called the teacher, who was very nice and assured me that our son was not alone, that it was typical for students to be confused at this point. She also asked that I give them a few more days to get through the chapter and then it would get better. It did get better, thank goodness, and we had our old son back! Remember, he was a good math student. I wonder now what happened to students for whom math didn't come easily.

I'm convinced in hindsight, that this was one of the very first "fuzzy math" textbooks. However, I had never heard of that, and it never entered my mind that anyone would be so foolish as to skew the math I had loved so much into a twisted bunch of disconnected ideas.

It is my desire to help parents quickly identify bad math teaching and implement a plan to correct it and fill in the gaps. No matter how old your child is, it's not too late. It's doable.


M said...

I actually remember Mrs. Strunk's freshman class....being incredibly frustrated. Hard to believe that was 20 years ago.

I don't know if you remember how Mr. Chandler taught us Trig/EA and then later Calculus. But I distinctively remember that our Senior calculus class had no text book. He made us take notes by hand while he explained the arithmetic on the board. He even gave us his own handwritten homework assignments, fresh from the copier every morning!

I suspect there was no fuzzy math there!

I also surmise his approach would never fly now in public or private HS education, and might explain why he wasn't teaching there a decade later. But most of that class was plenty well prepared for what came later in college.

Concerned Teacher said...

Undoubtedly your Calculus teacher knew what needed to be taught and how it should be taught. He probably quickly put aside a weak book for his "tried and proven" notes because he knew what you needed and the rigor with which it should be taught. That's why your class was prepared for college math.