Thursday, June 19, 2008

Using "Guess and Check" rather than the reliable "long division" algorithm

I came across an article I had discovered three years ago, written by C. Bradley Thompson on the Teach Math site. Thompson is currently a professor at Clemson University.

In this article entitled "Cognitive Child Abuse in Our Math Classrooms", Thompson discusses the cause of the dropping math scores in the United States. While discussing "whole-math", he makes these two observations about its proponents . . .

Advocates of 'new math' reject the idea that there are right and wrong answers and that . . . there are basic skills that students must be taught.

Advocates also believe that each student should invent his or her own math "strategies" by using the "guess and check" methods tauted by the "fuzzy math" supporters.

Here's the entire article.

In his descriptions of the activities in the "whole-math" (or "new math") classroom, you'll see students making piles of marshmallows to multiply, counting a million birdseeds in order to grasp the concept of "a million". And rather than have six-graders use multiplication or division facts to solve a problem, students are told that their strategies of "guess and check" are just as good as the logically proven principles of long division.

Would you want to be treated by a surgeon who learned his procedures by "guess and check"?

I'm amazed every day at the lack of grade school math being taught, when proficiency in the basic algorithms are desperately needed. It is these algorithms that form the foundation for higher forms of math knowledge.

. . . . . . . . .

Sadly not much has changed since this original article was published. School districts are sill adopting "fuzzy math" curriculum. Students are still struggling and math test scores are still low. Congress is still trying to decide how get our country's math scores up with the rest of the world. And the writers of curriculum are still resisting making needed changes because they refuse to acknowledge that the blame rests with their methods.

And any changes in Standards that thankfully are now being recommended will be slow in coming. It could be years before it trickles down to students. And in the meantime, another generation of students is seen their hopes of getting into engineering school dashed.