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Today’s math: ‘That’s NOT how WE do it!’

Sure, the economy is imploding, the Taliban is resurging, my husband’s day rate got cut by 30 percent — I can handle it. It will be OK, honest. It’s my son’s fifth-grade math homework that I’m not so sure about. It takes me to places of despair that only Kafka and a bottle of vodka can meet me in.

It starts out mundanely enough. I pick Ian up from school and casually pose the question: “What kind of homework do you have?”  I close my eyes and silently pray: Not today, not today.

“I have two free writes,” he says.


“Some science.”


“And math homework.”

My stomach drops, my head hits the steering wheel. “Don’t worry, Mom, it looks easy!”

Forget memory, it’s experiential
You see math, or the “new math” as some call it, is a special kind of torture that kids and parents across the nation must endure most nights of the week. Hear that vague screaming in the distance, see clumps of hair rolling down the sidewalk — yep, that’s what it is. Whereas old, moldy math was based on memorization and abacuses, bright and shiny new math is experiential in nature.

Instead of memorizing multiplication tables, kids have to BE the times table. You see kids feverishly adding up numbers in their heads to answer 7 times 8 instead of hitting the imaginary Pavlovian button in the brain, “56!” the way we did — thanks to our friends the flash cards. Instead of dividing numbers with a cute little bracket, students are “chunking” (which, sounds like something they are more likely will do freshman year at college), and make some sort of multilayered contraption that takes days to understand.

Some schools are learning division without understanding multiplication first — it’s like learning how run before you can crawl. All in all, math seems harder. Of course our children in many ways seem brighter than we ever were. What choice do they have? Our kids have to get into a good high school so they can get into a good college. As children most of us had no such worries. We rarely had homework. Most days after school was filled with “Gilligan’s Island” re-runs, a bag of soft white bread and a jar of mayo.

Easier ways are no good
Because of the generational math differences, your ability to help your child with math homework is limited. And kids know this — their teachers warned them. Math teachers send home politely worded notes to parents, saying essentially: “It is not the same; do not try this at home.” Even if you know an easier, less time-consuming way to do something, like flashcards, it’s no good.

“That’s NOT how WE do it!” my son wails.

Now, of course, our nights would go better if my son never needed help with his homework, and if math didn’t fill me with flashbacks of doing fractions in the summer. Oh, the tears that have been spilt (mostly mine) as I’ve struggled to help.

One smart and wily mother, an Oxford grad and runner-up for the Rhodes scholarship (weren’t we all?), said she’s told her twin daughters that after third grade, “You need to start teaching me your math.” And while one of her twins is OK with this, the other wants nothing to do with her. “So I signed them up for homework helpers!” A wise choice.

Even numbers people brought to their knees
My husband is a numbers person. When we closed on our house, and the closer people were going through the paperwork — where most of us nod, grin and try and look intelligent — my husband is adding up numbers in his brain and finding mistakes! Even my husband has been brought to his knees my son’s clenched-teeth “That’s-NOT-how-WE-do-it!” math.

As my husband walks shaking and mumbling into the living room I wonder: How could everything we learned in math class be so wrong? Then I remember our mathematical cohorts, the Wall Street guys, and … well, our exuberant spending, and I think maybe it’s good the kids are learning a new math: a better math. A math we do not understand.

If there is one thing we’ve learned from the recent bank failings, the Wall Street-churning, numbers-filled past: That is not how we do it!

Kelley Garry is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Tribune Media Service publications and the Chicago Tribune.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/29/2009 - 08:26 am.

    No doubt the “new” new math is an attempt make connections in the youngsters’ brains that will enable them to comprehend higher math more easily when they get to algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus and advanced topics.

    If it works, your children will, whether they’re gifted in math or not, become math geniuses who design the newest communications networks and spaceships. If not, they’ll just hate even the most basic math when they grow up because it was taught in such an obtuse and difficult to understand way.

    It’s possible that, depending on how their brains are naturally wired, those who would have been good at math will be, and those who would not have been, will not be.

    As to Wall Street, the idea of “math” went out the window a long time ago in favor of massive spreadsheets whose variables could be manipulated to tell those in charge exactly what they wanted to hear and allow them to pay themselves and promise others rewards that were mathematically impossible to sustain.

    I guess when it’s based on a gargantuan spread sheet and you’re “too big to fail” it’s not a Ponzi scheme, even though the principles, policies and procedures by which Wall Street was operating guaranteed that they would need a bail out from the tax payers to avoid having the same effect on their investors and the nation as a whole.

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/29/2009 - 08:46 am.

    Hmmmm…I thought new new way they “do it” is about the same as how they now use Spell Check, and the new language of Texting — which is

  3. Submitted by Glenn Toews on 09/29/2009 - 10:28 am.

    I agree with this from Greg Kapphahn:

    “If it works, your children will, whether they’re gifted in math or not, become math geniuses who design the newest communications networks and spaceships. If not, they’ll just hate even the most basic math when they grow up because it was taught in such an obtuse and difficult to understand way.”

    I find it disheartening that our educators see fit to experiment on our kids in this way. As parents, we can’t just give into the idea that we won’t understand how our kids are being taught. We need to invest ourselves in the methodology in order to ensure that the experiment does not fail. Parents have to be the safety net in this case, even though it will require more time than we think we have.

  4. Submitted by Debbie Fuller on 09/29/2009 - 02:36 pm.

    Great article…about a subject that hits close to home. I’ve been in that place of despair many times while trying to help my kids with their math. I led my kids to believe that I was sending them outside to burn off a little steam before they began their homework, in actuality I was perusing their assignments to avoid major frustration on both sides of the table.

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