Monday, February 23, 2004

New math involves creative ways of finding solutions

Education Q&A

Click here to e-mail Denise Smith Amos
QUESTION: Are there new techniques that grade schools are teaching for such old skills as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division? Techniques that are different from when you and I were kids?

How can parents help their kids with this kind of math homework when they don't understand the methods themselves?

ANSWER: There aren't new techniques, just expanded ways to arrive at a problem, said Kimya Moyo, mathematics manager for Cincinnati Public Schools.

Thanks to mathematics education reform, teachers are being urged to encourage creative thinking among youngsters before showing them the traditional steps for solving math problems.

"You and I learned mathematics strictly though learning a set of procedures. We know all about crossing out the zero and adding a 1, etc.," Moyo said.

"Do we really understand the operations, or do we just have great memories that allow us to recall the steps when necessary?

"What mathematics is calling for today is teaching with understanding."

The procedures learned in math are actually shortcuts to longer computations, she said. Some children can't learn the shortcuts without understanding the computations and reasons behind them.

"Our children are not able to think their way through problems because they don't understand the concepts,'' she said.

"They may remember the procedures, but they can't determine when to use each procedure because they don't really know the real meaning of the operations."

For example, she said, most of us would tackle 799 minus 563 by subtracting each digit from the right to the left.

But some children feel more comfortable with numbers ending in 00s.

They may first change both numbers into hundreds - so the problem becomes 700-500 - and then deal with the remaining digits.

They may change the 99 part of 799 into 100 to figure it out.

"That may seem like a very complicated method to arrive at an answer but, believe it or not, some kids think that way," she said.

"When kids come home with problems and parents only know the algorithm ... parents cancel out whatever freedom to think and conceptualize that may have been developed in the classroom."

Not all teachers and parents are sold on this. Jim Forte teaches fourth graders at St. Catharine of Siena in Westwood.

"Frankly, I feel if you teach your son to add, subtract, multiply and divide the way you were taught, you'll be okay,'' he said. "Why reinvent the wheel?"

He teaches the old methods and whatever method the textbook says, he said.

"Then I let the student use the method he/she is most comfortable with, so as not to limit creativity."


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