The New Math The Old New Math

The New Math

The Old New Math

NGSS and the Common Core are a significant departure from the way science and math have been taught, but they did come out of nowhere. In fact, they’re consistent with a trend that’s been slow-boiling for a half-century.

In a 2010 paper, Baker and colleagues analyzed 141 elementary school math textbooks published between 1900 and 2000. They found that what kids were learning changed considerably during that period. Until the 1960s, basic arithmetic accounted for 85 percent of math instruction. By the end of the century, that proportion had dropped to 64 percent, with the balance of instruction devoted to more complex topics like advanced arithmetic and geometry.

“When you step back historically and sociologically, it’s clear education has really ratcheted up along these cognitive dimensions,” Baker said. “The idea that education is like men’s ties and just goes through this cycle of wide and thin is not true.”

Pedagogy has shifted as well. During the same period in which students began to learn more complex mathematics, leaders in science and math education launched complementary pushes to teach students to think more like real scientists and mathematicians. These efforts included the “New Math” of the 1960s and similar plans that decade to teach science as an “inquiry into inquiry,” as one leading expert of the time put it. Later manifestations of the impulse away from rote instruction include curricular standards created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the 1980s and the enthusiasm for “inquiry-based” science in the 1990s.

All of these initiatives had the right idea, but their implementation was off, say developers of NGSS and Common Core math. “Inquiry” is a habit of mind among scientists, but in the 1990s it was taught as its own curricular topic: Last week we learned about DNA, this week we’re going to learn about an inquiry.

“Inquiry became almost an empty word, where it didn’t really matter what the inquiry was about,” said Heidi Schweingruber, director of the Board of Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which provided guidance for the development of NGSS.

The same problem happened in math. For the last 50 years, reformers have wanted to teach kids to reason mathematically, to think nimbly about topics like quadratic equations that otherwise come off flat. Instead, in programs that employed the New Math, students often ended up playing logic games.

“The push toward conceptual understanding and understanding rich mathematical ideas sometimes ended in practice with students just engaged in activities and messing around,” said Robert Floden, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.

It’s not surprising that ambitious changes like these would be hard to implement. After all, teaching kids to adopt a scientific mindset is a subtle and more complex task than having them memorize the parts of a cell. For one thing, it requires teachers who inhabit that mindset themselves, and they’re harder to find. For another, it takes a more patient perspective than the prevailing one in public education, which expects teachers to post a learning objective on the board before each class and end every unit with a multiple-choice test.

Chuck Reynolds

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