Friday, June 13, 2008

Some Math Stories, Same Troubles

A year or so after I had first discovered that not all math was the traditional math I had been taught, it began to hit close to home. I was celebrating Thanksgiving with my husband's family and sadly not all family members were there. In talking to my brother-in-law about my new found information on "fuzzy" math and "math wars", I was told, "Well, it's interesting that you should mention that." He then told me that was why his daughter and her husband were not with our family. They had used that extended weekend to visit her husband's family 200+ miles away because his young sister was suddenly having a lot of trouble with math and they were going to see if they could help her. And, he continued, this young sister was really smart and had always made really good grades in math and scored well on tests and the parents couldn't figure out what was wrong. How I wished I had been able to help this young girl or at least talk to her family. I didn't really know her, but I felt empathy for her and her family. And this is what often happens -- the whole family becomes involved trying to help, but because terminology is different, because parents are told NOT to try to help students by using the parents' old, out-of-date methods (because you're going to confuse them), parent involvement is often delayed until much damage has been done. And another thing, the student get's "down" on themselves and start telling themselves "I'm dumb".

In a second "family" story, I was able to talk to parents, but not until the students were in college. The mother was bemoaning the fact that they didn't know what they were going to do with their boys, my nephews, because they both were having so much trouble with college algebra. I knew they had had trouble in high school. It had been a source of bits of discussion off and on as their troubles were mentioned, as tutors had been hired, etc. We all caught on that, but for the tutors, those boys might not have made it through high school algebra. But now here they were in college, still struggling with algebra. I told the mom, "Well, it may not be your boys fault. It may be that the boys were taught "fuzzy" math." She went on to describe how they themselves had tried to help them during middle and high school, but the math didn't make sense and so they had to use tutors. She didn't know she was describing a situation that was repeating itself all across the country.

Has anyone noticed the number of Sylvan, Kumon, Huntington, etc., Math Centers popping up all around the countries. Parents used to be able to help children, prior to the first "new math" intrusions of the 60's and 70's. My own father helped me occasionally, but it didn't take much because the base/rate/percentage problems, or the algebra were the same as he had learned. My 7th and 8th grade "math" teacher was really an "art" teacher who had been asked to teach math for a time and unfortunately for me, it was during my time. No one in the class was getting it, including me, and I had to go home every evening and have my dad help me until I got it. Then, before school the next morning, we students would all meet together to go over math and I'd reteach the lesson, as my dad had helped me. We all made it through middle school math because of my dad. That was before the days of "tutors". Family could help family then. But not any more. At least, it's not easy to do now. Thankfully there are parents who will not give up on their kids, who try to find help when they don't know what to do. But my dad got me ready for algebra and I never had a bit of trouble with algebra (I'm sure it was "traditional algebra").

There are several variables: is it the math curriculum? is it the math teacher? is it the student? It could be more than one. If your student has a young math teacher, chances are he/she came through college having been taught to use the "new math" approach (Don't teach the students methods or algorithms! Make them figure it out by themselves.). But it could also be the curriculum and I'm going to add a post shortly with some identifying marks of "fuzzy" math so you can determine if that is the type of curriculum your student is using.