New Math Approach Tries to Take the Drudgery, Fear out of Subject

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Many of her peers dream of becoming artists, teachers and professional athletes, but 10-year-old Samantha Gann wants to be an accountant.

The fourth-grader at Collins School in Schaumburg is among a growing number of students who actually enjoy math.

Yes, math - the subject that still gives many adults anxiety attacks with the mere mention of the word.

"It's my favorite subject," insists Samantha. "It's a lot easier than the rest of my subjects."

A decade ago, educators would have dubbed Samantha the exception. But these days they expect that same enthusiasm from all their students because math class just isn't what it used to be.

There are very few dittos and worksheets of page after page of the same algorithms. Today, along with learning how to do computations, students play computer games, chess and complete other hands-on activities to fully grasp what the teacher is trying to get across.

The difference, educators say, is that students have a better understanding of what they are learning in math class, primarily because they are being taught math better.

The best ways to teach math is what more than 18,000 math teachers are discussing this week at a national conference on the subject.

The 78th annual National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference, in Chicago through Saturday, is expected to be the largest gathering of U.S. mathematics instructors in the world. About 1,300 workshops, sessions and panel discussions are planned to help teachers improve skills and learn new ways to teach math.

Not everyone agrees with the new approaches to teaching math. For instance, a San Diego-based parent group called Mathematically Correct has denounced the new curriculums. They say the new teaching styles do not offer enough of the basic computation skills or spend enough time mastering skills.

Those are arguments some suburban parents also have brought to their local districts. To combat it, many like St. Charles Unit District 303 and Schaumburg Elementary District 54 have been trying to educate parents on the goals of the new curriculums, through math nights and school board meetings.

The debate likely will continue at the conference with math experts arguing the merits of standards released Wednesday by the Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which include a breakdown of what students should know at certain grade levels.

Many of the standards are a continuation of ones adopted by the group in 1989, such as reducing the repetition in the math curriculum from grade level to grade level, incorporating math education in subjects like science, using real-life examples to teach math concepts, ongoing professional development for teachers and parental involvement in changing students' perceptions of their ability to succeed in math.

Schools across the suburbs already have been using some of these goals as they revamp their math curriculums. …