Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Brain Hurts

I finished school almost three decades ago, so the idea of sitting down to work on math and social studies and reading for any length of time on any given day offends me. Add to that the complexity of the work our children bring home, the amount of work our children bring home, and the general lack of understanding My Lovely Wife and I are able to offer our children once they get home, and the entire situation becomes unbearable.

And I'm not talking about college-level or even high school-level work, either. I'm talking about elementary school math. Just a quick glance at our sons' math homework is enough to convince me of one of two possibilities: (1) math has changed a whole lot in thirty years, or (2) I have the equivalent innate mathematical abilities as a domesticated turkey. Neither option is good.

When I was in elementary school, we worked on four basic mathematical concepts. They were addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. We learned to memorize the multiplication tables. We learned long division. We learned the basics and, if we paid attention, we learned them well.

These days, it isn't enough for kids to know 7 times 7 equals 49. They have to be able to prove it using any of seventeen different methods. Instead of being tested on whether they can achieve the end result, they're being tested on the different processes available to achieve the result. But it seems to me like the basic methods are being shoved aside.

I recall one night when Our Daughter was little and the teacher assigned division problems for homework but had not yet explained how division works. Our Daughter had been told if the problem asked "what is 8 divided by 2," then she should work the problem the other way around to figure out what number times 2 equals 8. This sounds easy enough, but what happens the moment you start working with two-digit and three-digit numbers? What kid would be able to figure out 3,111 divided by 183 equals 17 by trying to guess what number times 17 equals 3,111?

My favorite of the new methods for learning multiplication is the latticework process. Put simply, lattice multiplication takes simple equations and turns them into undecipherable hieroglyphics even Pythagoras and Archimedes would have trouble comprehending. Lattice multiplication stretches an equation that should take up one square inch of a piece of paper into a complex diagram that fills the entire page and consumes the lead of two pencils in the process. And, if the end result isn't correct, good luck figuring out exactly where the problem went wrong. When the teacher sends home the weekly e-newsletter instructing parents to ensure the homework is done correctly, she might as well tell us to make sure our kids understand the theory of Quantum Entanglement while we're at it.

My plea to educators around the world, if I may be so bold as to submit a plea, is to stop mucking about with the tried and true methods of teaching math. We don't need new approaches. We don't need seventeen different methods of figuring out 5 times 5 equals 25. Just teach the kids math. Sweet, simple, straightforward math that doesn't hurt my brain.

Maybe my expectations are low, but I'd be happy if the German stopped putting his shirt on backwards and the Italian stopped walking around the house tapping his athletic supporter like a percussion instrument. Complex mathematics can wait.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

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