The 'New Math': How to Support Your Child in Elementary School

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The 'new math': How to support your child in elementary school

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Lynda Colgan, Professor of Elementary Mathematics, Queen's University, Ontario

There is likely no topic in Canada at the moment that is more acrimonious than elementary school mathematics education. The entire country, it seems, is divided.

On one side, there are those who are enraged by the so-called "new math" that has been held simultaneously responsible for a) diminished achievement by students and b) frustration among parents who feel helpless in the face of unfamiliar strategies.

On the other side are those who insist that math must make sense to today's students -- children who have grown up in a digital age, are adept with multiple technologies and will likely never be required to perform long division.

As a researcher who is deeply committed to engaging parents as partners in mathematics education, I spend many evenings on the road. I work with school staff and school councils across the province of Ontario to support parents in their efforts to help their children learn and love mathematics.

In communities from Chesterville to Picton, Guelph to Thunder Bay and Courtice to Fort Frances, I have encountered the same question repeatedly: What are you teaching my child?

Arithmetic from Mexico to Japan

The question is always sincere. The rationale differs considerably, but in most cases, the question arises because the computational strategies that the child is using to perform multi-digit calculations look very different from those learned by the parents, resulting in confusion and mistrust.

Experience has taught me to give a quick mini-lesson on arithmetic around the world to emphasize that there is no one global set of rules for calculations.

For example, I show a method that was used in Mexico, called "llevamos uno" -- we carry one. Instead of noting ones or 10s to be "carried" at the top of the next column, students were taught to note those figures to the right side of the problem.

I share a method that I learned from the Philippines, where students use dashes to indicate groups of 10.

Finally, I share a Japanese "scratch method" that is similar to the one used in the Philippines, but instead of dashes, overstrikes are used to keep track of groups of 10s. In addition, the leftover amounts are indicated by the use of subscripts.