In the past two weeks, I have been reliving my middle school math nightmares, and it hasn’t even gotten tough, yet. It all started with helping Joe, the 7th-grader, learn to work with negative numbers. Correct that, we were learning to work with integers. Oh, yeah, integers, numbers, and numerals are not necessarily the same thing, even though the little buggers look identical (in the future, I promise not to give my students a hard time over verb forms that seem self-evident to me).
Then, Amy, the 6th grader, needed help with long division. I have to say I’m on much more solid ground there, but I’m already bracing myself for the mysteries of algebra and quadratic equations. It was in the midst of these help sessions that I read the New York Times op/ed pice, How to Fix Our Math Education – NYTimes.com. In it, the authors decry the rather abstract way we tend to teach math, divorcing it from real-life applications. They also suggest the rather radical idea that not everyone needs to learn the same math. It made me wonder if we don’t think of learning math the same way senior fraternity members view hell week: if I had to go through it, so do you.
It wasn’t until I took a math for non-majors course in college that I finally got quadratic equations. When I did, they suddenly seemed beautiful–I learned to love that elusive X. Ask me, though, how many times in the last thirty years I’ve actually had to use one in some practical way. 0, zip, nada. In fact, I probably did encounter situations where I could have solved a real-life quantitative problem by solving for X, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.
So, here I am, back in the world of wandering through abstract concepts with no idea where this trail comes out. I’ll be leading my kids, using a mish-mash of the New Math of my generation (“but, Dad, I have to show why that’s the correct answer!) and the shortcuts my engineer father tried to teach me (“don’t you see how much easier it is if you just switch all this stuff around?”).
I just hope and pray we get through it with a minimum of weeping and gnashing of teeth–oh, and that the kids don’t cry much, either.