Just teach my kid the math

James Tanton:

It is astounding to me that mathematics – of all school subjects – elicits such potent emotional reaction when “reform” is in the air. We’ve seen the community response to the Common Core State Standards in the U.S., the potency of the Back to Basics movement in Alberta, Canada, and the myriad of internet examples of the absolute absurdity of “new math.”

At face value, the strong reactions we see can be interpreted as paradoxical. Parents might openly admit they themselves did not understand mathematics, that they actively hate mathematics even, but insist that we don’t dare do anything different for their child in math class! Parents’ befuddlement over their child’s third-grade homework might be seen as a wrong of the new curriculum, not as evidence of the failing of their own mathematics education, that they weren’t provided the flexibility and agility of thought to see simple arithmetic in multiple lights.

It seems that previous generations were seduced to equate familiarity with understanding. For instance, our standard arithmetic algorithms are somewhat bizarre – they are the end result of a human process of codifying arithmetical thinking, designed with the extra goal of using as little of precious 17th-century ink as possible. But if one does them often enough, their routine begins to feel comfortable and familiar.

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