Why Math Instruction Had to Change


If you’ve read a newspaper lately, or watched the news, or even had conversations on social media related to snippets of instruction, you’ve no doubt read or heard something about the “new math” and how it is complicated, confusing, and utterly unnecessary. Those comments can often be attributed to the parents of students in K-12 settings; but the changes in math education are affecting all students. At the core of these challenges and concerns are the questions, “Why did instruction have to change? How is this better?” These concerns are often brought up as examples of ‘new math’ instruction is demonstrated, often without context or explanation. 

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Rather than memorizing problems, students need to understand numbers, place value, and mathematical processes. 

Historically, math education in the United States focused on teaching students the formulae and algorithms to use that, when presented with a problem, will enable them to get the right answer. Often based on memorization, students rarely had to do much critical thinking in order to score well on homework or tests, and those assessments were also usually the only application of the math processes the students saw. This type of silo-based instruction (learn what you need to from this lesson/unit, and we’ll move onto the next one) leaves students with little conceptual understanding of the math they do, and that in turn leaves them at a decided disadvantage in the technologically based 21st century.

The demands of the 21st century – whether we are talking about students entering postsecondary education or the workplace – require them to be critical thinkers and apply reasoning skills to solve problems. According to Donald J. Farish, Ph.D.,  the 10th president of Roger Williams University,  65 percent of jobs will require at least some education or training beyond high school by year 202, compared to 28% in 1973. 

From a skills standpoint, the better paying jobs require individuals who
can work with new information and who can solve unstructured problems
– skills that will be very difficult to replace using technology.

All of this requires a solid understanding of math, reasoning, and problem solving. The shift in math instruction is designed to prepare individuals for the types of experiences, and careers available in a global economy.

 Giving students page after page of “practice problems” does nothing to stimulate their reasoning or critical thinking skills. The advent of standards-based educational reform (the Common Core State Standards and the College and Career Readiness Standards) is an attempt to begin to address the shortcomings of traditional instruction, and provide students with the type of instruction that will encourage the development of critical thinking and conceptual understanding through meaningful tasks.

Instructor frame instruction by asking, “How will the problems and activities I will use in my instruction:

  1. Stretch my students’ abilities by asking them to apply previous content to a new problem?
  2. Encourage the development of reasoning and problem solving skills while building conceptual mastery?

The time spent being purposeful about the tasks and activities students complete should yield results in the form of building their competencies in mathematics. Doing this will help the landscape of math instruction—and hopefully math teacher education—to shift to a focus on helping students to not just “do math,” but to learn, apply, and understand math.

About the Author: Libby Seirkes, from Firelight Education, provides professional development and consulting services to educators from all walks of life. Follow her on Facebook. She will be releasing her first book on mathematics instruction, full of examples and strategies for classroom instruction. 

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