My Return To Blogging – Math Wars

Many of you may have noticed I took a hiatus from blogging this year.  This wasn’t intentional, life simply got in the way.  I took on a new grade this year after having taught Grade 8 for literally my entire career (12 years).  It effectively made me a first year teacher all over again.  This and my ageing children who are now involved in extracurriculars plus school pursuits have kept me busy.

It’s no excuse.  Blogging is a huge part of my professional development and I’ve been neglecting it.  So what has brought me out of my siesta?  Math Wars.

There is this prevailing idea that is being perpetuated that “basic math” has been replaced by so called “Discovery Learning” math.  And for the most part I’ve ignored it and shrugged it off and I have been unwilling to engage in debate.  My friends are debating this on their facebook pages.  My news feed is filled with people sharing videos and pictures of mostly very complicated things that have been simplified to the point where I shake my head.  My twitter feed is filled with teachers defending and parrying attacks of the general public and local media who have turned an accusatory finger towards them under the grounds, “PISA standings are dropping…..YOU FIX IT.”

And the math teacher inside me sighs.  At least the part that knows you can take statistical results and manipulate them any way you want to prove your point.  Yet people are taking the information at face value and no one is delving into the deeper issue which is, “What does it mean to teach math for the purposes of understanding?”

I have said it before and I will say it again, memorization of the times tables is great.  Unless you are presented with a problem and you have no idea you need to multiply to solve it.  And what about the understanding that dividing is the opposite of multiplying.  I’ve got kids who say they love multiplying but hate dividing.  They have no concept that one is the reverse of the other.  These kids are products of Mad Minutes and “basic math” gone awry.

We also get kids who are so focused on process that they don’t stop to think about the answer they have come up with.

Is 90 divided by 1/3 = 30 or 60 or 270?

So here’s the process.  When we divide fractions we invert the second fraction and then multiply.  (Do you know why?)  At any rate 90 divided by 1/3 becomes 90 X 3/1 = 270

So now look at this question……

Kenny had 90 jelly beans.  He gave away 1/3 of his jelly beans.  How many jelly beans did Kenny give away?

And here’s how one of my students solved the question…….

Well, Kenny is dividing up his jelly beans so this is a dividing question.  90 divided by 1/3 is 270 so the answer is, he gave away 270 jelly beans.

Mathematically sound in his process of dividing fractions.  Except there was an error in logic.  Did you catch it?  Well let me ask you something….he started off with 90 jelly beans but somehow gave away 270?  How is that possible?

But this kid has been taught when you divide fractions you invert the second fraction and then multiply.  Go!  Basic math skills at it’s finest.  Too bad he didn’t know he needed to multiply to answer this question, not divide.

So let me back this up and say that yes we will drill kids with basic facts until their eyes bleed.  They will be able to recite the times table up to 12 like robotic little monkeys.  Fantastic.  And this will be great for the grocery store.  When we need to know how much 5 jars of pasta will cost us when they each cost $3 on sale.  Fabulous.

But what about when we are building a house and the lot is only so big and we want to build a house that will maximize square footage while only taking up X percentage of the total lot size?

Knowing 9×7 = 63 doesn’t exactly help with that now does it.  Rats.

There is an argument that 9×7 = 63 is the foundational skill you need to build on.  Ok, I can see that point.  And to some extent I agree.  But when kids ask you WHY does 9X7=63 you can’t just say, “Because.  Now go memorize that.”  They want to know about the process.  Math is about process, not about memorization.  Kids want to UNDERSTAND the process.

Getting the public upset about this so called “lack of basic math” is a distraction technique.  The purpose?  To make you think the current provincial government is evil, that are kids are becoming stupid but that’s ok because provincial party X has all the answer.  What is the answer?  A return to basic math!  Which appeals to voters because after all, that’s the way they were taught and look how they turned out?  Right?  Right?


The world I grew up in and entered into as an adult is very different from the world my children will enter.  Kodak was one the leader in terms of camera technology.  They aren’t anymore.  Why?  They held the status quo, failed to innovate and other companies rose above them.  We don’t need basic fact regurgitation, we need kids who can think.  Do I think kids need to be able to multiply 5 x 3 without the aid of a calculator?  Yes.  But “basic math” goes way beyond this.

Another scenario for your consideration……

You’re in a mall and your favourite pair of pants which was $80 are now 25% off.  So you think….

1) Well 25% is a quarter and a quarter of $80 would be $20 off.

Or possibly…..

2)  10% of 80 is $8 so 20% is $16 and then half of 10% is $4 so 16 + 4 = $20 off…..

I’m willing to bet very few of you went……ok, so change the percent to a decimal (.25) now multiply by 80 which gives us $20.  And yet that’s how you would be taught to do it in school.  It’s how I was taught.  That’s “basic math” for you.  And how many people in order to do it that way would have pulled out a calculator?  The very thing the public is ready to string me up for?

Math is nothing more than logic puzzles at work.  It’s so much more than basic math.

Anyone who has you convinced that kids are no longer doing “basic math” has done you a disservice.  And if they have used a standardized test as their “proof” you should be asking more questions.

Test scores went down, our ratings are dropping, teachers and the government who invented the curriculum are to blame.  It’s an easy leap to make.

You got into a car accident, your car is totalled, you’re a bad driver, insurance rates are sky rocketing because of bad drivers like you.  What do you mean the accident wasn’t your fault?  That the road was slippery?  That YOU were actually hit by the other driver?

There’s always another explanation.  Instead of pointing fingers, I’d like to encourage you to ask questions instead.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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One Response to My Return To Blogging – Math Wars

  1. Pingback: Alberta Educators Speaking in Support | Zero-Knowledge Proofs

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