In the latest of our ongoing Pandemic Parenting series, Sentinel contributing writer Meg McIntyre reported last weekend on a wave of anxiety among parents who find themselves having to try to assist their children with math homework. The accommodations forced on schools, students and families by the pandemic have both put some students behind in subjects such as math, and made parents even more of a key component in their children’s education.
That it’s math giving people such fits makes sense. First, because unless you’re one of those students with a natural affinity for the subject, math can be tough; and it’s one students typically have to take from early education through high school, and perhaps beyond.
And there’s one other complicating factor: Because many students struggle with it, math pedagogists (that is, those teaching math teachers how to teach math) are constantly finding new ways to approach the topic. This, like math itself, can be either enormously helpful or endlessly confusing. So much so that generations of students — and attempting-to-be-helpful parents — have been stymied by the prospect of having to “forget” what they were previously taught in order to study new approaches.
How daunting is this? Well, one of the experts McIntyre spoke with is a Keene State math instructor whose graduate work focuses on “math anxiety and trauma in math education.”
Thus the idea of “new math” and the jitters it evokes is, actually, not new at all. In fact, grandparents (and their parents) may recall it dating back more than half a century. The comedic musical performer Tom Lehrer raised the issue in a song performed on TV and in concerts all over the world back in 1965.
This was his introduction, which might have an eerily familiar ring to today’s parents:
“Some of you with small children have perhaps been put in the embarrassing situation of being unable to do your child’s arithmetic homework because of the current revolution in mathematics teaching known as ‘The New Math.’”
Lehrer made a second career out of such satirical songs, on a variety of topics. But he was especially suited to this subject because his first career was as a mathematician, teaching at MIT and Harvard, among other colleges.
One of the key lines in Lehrer’s bit, both comically and seriously, was this: “But in the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.”
Again, that approach is cited again and again by math educators even today, though with a far more self-serious tone.
The thing is, it IS most important to understand the process and why it works, though as Lehrer slyly left understood but unstated, it also helps to get the right answer. Especially if you’re paying your bills or, say, calculating rocket trajectories for NASA.
It also can be very helpful to some learners to have information presented in a different way. We do wonder, though, how long a concept can be considered “new.” Also, why is math subject to “new” approaches every decade or so, but not English? Why is there no “new chemistry”? But we digress.
The report last week actually focused on ways to alleviate the anxiety, though we note several of those ways involve getting more help online, so maybe there’s reason to be a little nervous about it?
A larger takeaway from the story, for the moment, might be the apparent need for standardized testing of students this year in particular, to gauge whether they have, indeed, fallen behind in subjects like math, and if so, by how far. But that need has to be coupled with the realization that it would be patently unfair to judge or punish districts if students have fallen below par after a year of living in isolation.
As for Lehrer, we highly recommend looking up his work. It can be found on YouTube — likely in black and white; yes, it really is that old.
Here’s the final lesson on the topic by the Harvard graduate in mathematics:
“Hooray for new math! New-hoo-hoo math!
It won’t do you a bit of good to review math.
Because it’s simple,
So very simple,
That only a child can do it!”