An engineer who grew up “old school” says math education isn’t a game. Or is it?
When I was a kid growing up on our family ranch outside Faith, South Dakota, there was not a lot to do at night. I am the youngest of four kids, but nearly 10 years behind the next youngest. All I had for entertainment was Mom, Dad and “Matlock” on Tuesday nights.
Dad started teaching how to play chess and a few card games, including cribbage. There I learned quick mental math of addition, subtraction and I suppose a little bit of multiplying in there somewhere. From there, grade school math fundamentals came pretty easily for me, and on through life to follow.
Here we are 25 years down the road, and here I am with a third-grader of my own.
She started bringing math home at least once a week pretty regularly. Oh, boy, what a mess of ridiculous nonsense. She has number lines and huge grids of squares to solve problems. She is using her fingers to figure out five plus three, no mental math ability at all.
They give the kids all these “tools” to look the answer up instead of actually doing math. I’m a degreed engineer, so this is just bizarre to me. When I was a kid, those tools were referred to as a “crutch” by even the teachers. I asked her, “Don’t you do flash-cards in class?” She answered with “Sometimes, but not very often.”
I had measurable more success helping my daughter with her homework, so it has been absorbed as standard work for my nightly routine. We got into three-digit numbers one night, so I introduced the methods of borrowing and carrying. The next night her graded paper had the note on it, “Who taught you how to borrow?” Well, that got cut off short. Her teacher gave her the instruction to stop doing it that way, or it would have to be counted as wrong for not using the instructed on the worksheet. You have got to be kidding me.
We went in to parent/teacher conferences a couple weeks ago, and it was a revealing conversation. I expressed my concern and how I was surprised how basic principles like borrowing and carrying are not in the picture yet. Apparently, that is fourth Grade curriculum.
I explained my background, and that I thought mental math was missing. I spouted out, “Well, 287 plus 113 is 400. Right?”
With wide eyes the teacher said she would have to believe me, because she is “not a math person.” I think I was able to keep from visibly rolling my eyes in front of her.
She went on to explain: “I think this new way is great. I mean, when I was taught how to borrow and carry as a kid, I didn’t really understand it. I got the right answer, but I didn’t really understand it.”
I replied, “If you got the right answer, you understood it.”
The system now appears to be “No child left behind, just entire generations.”
I have had a lot of conversations with other parents lately about the new math. One of these was over Thanksgiving with my cousin back home and his wife, who happens to be a school teacher. They seemed to be of a similar opinion of the topic. They also mentioned cribbage is a routine game in their house, and it all came back to me. Now I know what I need to do.
Grandma, we need a cribbage board for Christmas.
Nathan Fischbach grew up on a family cattle ranch in western South Dakota. He has a degree in engineering from South Dakota State University and lives with his wife and kids in northeast South Dakota, where he works for an euipment manufacturer.