Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yesterday Math

One of our area’s few private elementary school options, the Willowwind School, announced this week that it was changing its math curriculum from Everyday Math, which our public schools use, to Singapore Math.

Carly Andrews, the Willowwind Head of School, told me that teachers had “expressed concerns about the limitations of Everyday Math and the effect it was having on student’s math interest and achievement. . . . We wanted an approach that provided more depth and more focused practice, rather than a fast-paced cycle through multiple lessons and infinite problem-solving strategies.”

Over at Kid-Friendly Schools, FedUpMom has posted frequently on the topic of math curricula; she’s a believer in Singapore Math, and a critic of Everyday Math. NorthTOmom has also posted on the topic, and I believe she is partial to Jump Math.

I’m not well enough informed to have a strong opinion about one math curriculum versus another. But I can certainly testify that my kids have found Everyday Math unnecessarily frustrating and unclear at times. It’s not hard to imagine that a different program might be better.

At the same time, I wish people would give more thought to whether it’s a good idea to push math on young kids to the extent that we do. It seems to me that any attempt to make elementary-age kids develop a deep understanding of a subject that they may not be interested in, at a level that is of very limited use to them in their daily lives, and at a pace not of their own choosing, is starting off with two-and-a-half strikes against it, and I wish I had a dollar for every math program that was enthusiastically heralded as an improvement over the one that went before.

Given how little math is retained by our adult population once they’ve been out of school for a few years, it’s hard for me to share the sense that we urgently need to ensure, for example, that every ten-year-old can divide by fractions -- to the point where we make our first-graders sit through an hour of math every day, but give them fifteen minutes or less to eat lunch. I can’t help but wonder whether a lot of math concepts could be learned more easily and with less frustration if we just put them off until the kids were a little older (an idea discussed here), and instead used elementary school just to allow the kids to be exposed to math without the same obsessive focus on achieving certain arbitrary benchmarks by certain ages.

In some places, after all, Every-Other-Day Math seems to work just fine.


KD said...

Everyday Math is better than the previous curriculum used in the ICCSD, the Investigations/TERC curriculum. My older child had a few years of the Investigations was very confusing! That being said I remember seeing that Everyday Math was considered a controversial curriculum years ago before it was chosen by the district.

Singapore Math from what I understand, seems to be on the other end of the spectrum compared to Everyday Math...I'd be concerned about the teachers getting appropriate training when switching to the new curriculum.

As far as frustration with Everyday Math, sometimes the program seems too "wordy" for the grade level. My younger child seems to understand math for the most part but becomes overwhelmed sometimes by the written instructions...or if he has to write about math in sentence form.

As far as the appropriate age to start..I don't know the answer to that. Perhaps there is more of a developmental component to how kids learn math, like there is to reading. I know my younger child has always been interested in math and seemed to pick up quite a bit just from overhearing me work with his sister.

As far as your comment about the hour your kids spend in math, I often wonder what my own kids are doing in school. I know when my older kid had the Investigations curriculum I know they wasted a lot of time on what I thought was silly...finding advertisements with the number three, cutting out number threes, coloring number threes etc., past the point where such activities seemed devlopmentally appropriate.

northTOmom said...

Interesting. Recently there was an article in a major newspaper here, talking about how certain private schools in Ontario are adopting JUMP math, whereas public schools are sticking with the Chicago Math-based programs currently in place. (Here's the article.)

I think either JUMP or Singapore Math would be an improvement over Everyday Math (or the equivalent programs used in Canada), but I tend to agree with you, Chris, that young kids may not need to spend as much time on math as they currently do. As a kid, I certainly had far fewer hours of math instruction per week (covering far fewer topics) than my girls. I did well in high school math—hard as that is for me to believe now—so I don't think there were any ill effects.

northTOmom said...

Sorry, wrong link (though that one is also about JUMP). Here's the link to the more recent article I was referring to above.

Chris said...

KD -- My guess is that the hour-long daily math lesson in first grade probably involves a lot of supposedly "fun" activities that are somehow connected to numbers, like the ones you mention. On the one hand, I hope that's the case, because that's better than having six-year-olds sit quietly and do worksheets for an hour every day. On the other hand, it's hard to see how those activities are so crucial to their eventual ability to do math that we must absolutely schedule an hour a day for them, as opposed to giving them more time to eat or play at recess. I was surprised to realize this week that they have art only once a week, for example.

Chris said...

NorthTOmom -- To me, Willowwind's switch to Singapore Math is interesting as a business decision: they appear to have calculated that, given how local parents are feeling about Everyday Math, Willowwind can get a competitive advantage by dumping it in favor of a different program. I suspect they're right about that.

As for the idea that young kids may not need or benefit from large quantities of math instruction -- alas, our federal government has decided that there is only one right to think about that issue.

Chris said...

FedUpMom chimes in here.

KD said...

I don't agree with all your comments about math, but I think it is great to have a discussion about it. I will say I am okay with giving a push to my kids in some circumstances...math would be one.

I'm wondering though if you think we are pushing kids to take math, when they may not be interested in it, couldn't we say the same for all of the activities they do in school.

How does a kid really know at a young age whether they will truly like math or not?

I know as a kid I intensely disliked how PE was taught most of the time. I honestly could have cared less about playing softball, dodgeball etc. Now I don't want that comment to be construed as saying I don't think kids should have opportunities to be physically active. Now I have a kid that loves PE. PE seems to have improved since I was a kid....but I think he would have liked PE then as well.

Chris said...

KD -- I do think we should ask that question about all of the things we make kids do in school. I'm not against all coercion with kids, but I think it has costs that we should take into account, and I think we should resort to it only when we're pretty confident that it's necessary (instead of making it the default approach to just about everything, as we do now). Math seems especially to bring those feelings out in me, because the costs (in terms of frustration and math-phobia, as well as just the burden on the kids' time) seem high, and I don't at all feel confident that pushing it on the kids in elementary school makes any real difference in their lives, as opposed to if we just waited until they were a little older.

This weekend I was at a party, and a bunch of parents were talking about their kids' experiences with math. The kids they were talking about were all fifth- or sixth-grade girls. Every one of those parents talked about how their kids had been in tears with frustration over their math homework. I've heard similar stories from other parents as well.

This seems crazy to me. What do we think is so all-important about fifth-graders knowing long division (or reducing fractions, etc.) that it's worth regularly making them so frustrated with the subject that they're reduced to tears? It doesn't seem crazy to wonder whether we're asking them to do stuff that they're just not ready for -- or at least that would be much easier a few years later. I mean, if everyone insisted on forcing three-year-olds to learn to read, we'd probably have a lot of tears too, for good reason. It's hard for me to believe that what little we gain by forcing these math experiences on them at that age isn't outweighed by the negative associations they'll have with the subject from then on.

Yeah, if it were entirely up to me, I'd probably give kids much more say in what they did during school. If they didn't like PE, I'd let them do something else that they wanted to do, within some pretty broad boundaries. I'm sure that, as a result, they wouldn't all be at "grade-level" in every subject at every age, but I don't see that as so awful. I think that when you learn something by choice, you learn it much better.

My fifth-grade daughter takes cello a couple of times a week, and also German twice a week before school. Those were entirely her choice; we didn't even suggest them. (In fact, getting her to school early for German is a big pain.) But she really likes them -- they're some of her favorite parts of school. If we had told her in fourth grade that she was required to take cello, I don't have any confidence that she'd feel the same way about it.

Math, on the other hand, is a sore spot. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if she could have chosen whether to take math, the same way she made a choice about the cello.

(Wow, you've really got me on a roll -- I have to continue this in a second comment . . .)

Chris said...

So what about the kids who would never choose to learn math? First, I think that if it were truly optional, more kids would eventually take it than you might expect. Second, if it were truly optional, teachers would be forced to teach it in a way that would keep the kids coming to class -- challenging them just enough to keep it interesting, but not enough to consistently frustrate them. Third, putting kids in the driver's seat of their own education is a good experience in and of itself, even if they end up making choices we wouldn't have made for them. Finally, if some kids didn't take math at all in elementary school, I don't see that as the end of the world. You could always make it mandatory later on if you really wanted to. And I still think you could learn K-6 math relatively quickly once you're a twelve-year-old in middle school.

It may not be a perfect recipe for making sure everyone leaves high school proficient in math, but all you have to do is look around to see that what we're doing now isn't either.

I know that, when I get onto the topic of math, I start straying very far from what most people think about how school has to be. Most people think that no kid would ever voluntarily choose to learn math. Isn't it plausible, though, that that attitude just reflects the fact that most people have bad memories of being made to learn math? How do we know whether it's the math, or the compulsoriness, that made the experience aversive? The fact that we all disliked compulsory math is not a great argument for more compulsory math.

(For what it's worth, the few genuinely "unschooled" kids I know chose to learn math, and couldn't understand why other people thought it was boring.)

I expect to be in the minority on issues like this one, but it does seem strange to me that certain questions just never even get asked: Would kids be any worse off as adults if math were not compulsory in elementary school? Are our efforts to start math earlier just creating lifelong math-phobes? How much K-12 math actually gets retained into adulthood? How much math would elementary school kids learn even if it weren't compulsory? How would their attitudes toward math differ in later years?

It just seems like we're on autopilot with how we think of issues like those, even though everyone keeps complaining about the outcomes . . .

Well, thanks for listening to this extended ramble. And thanks for the comments!

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I responded on KFS:

Too Young or Badly Taught?

Newbie said...

Thanks for the blog! I am new to the area and actually pulled a child out of school and homeschooled him because Everyday Math squelched his love for math. He loved math again after he switched. The repetitive spiral was torture to a kid who "got it" the first time. I hope it doesn't torture my younger one- I will be teaching her math at home anyway knowing this is here. My old district got rid of Everyday Math and some math teachers referred to Everyday Math as "Math for future liberal arts majors" meaning a child who may have had a future in math or science would be ruined.

Chris said...

Newbie -- Thanks for commenting! You should make your feelings about this known to the school board. If I remember correctly, the elementary math curriculum will be coming up for review sometime within the next year or two.

If it makes you feel any better, apparently Everyday Math disappears when your kids get to seventh grade here. My oldest starts seventh grade next year, and I'll be interested to see what the math curriculum looks like.