New Math versus Old Math

A friend is a teacher in the school system and his biggest problem with the profession is the constant scrutiny it gets from the public, whether it is media publicity or constant critique from over zealous “helicopter parents”. But occasionally there is an issue where he has no choice but to side with the public. The recent uproar over how math is being taught is one of them.

Here is how I understand the difference between the new and old methods of teaching math. The old method involved learning or memorizing the multiplication table and formulas to arrive at an answer. The new method places less focus on memorization, and replaces it with text laden, descriptive problems designed to encourage students to discover the answer.

In short, the problem with old math is students had to accept that 2 x 2 = 4. The strength of the new math is that it encourages students to ask why is the answer 4. Proponents of new math argue that the old method is flawed as it is based on memorization and rote, and that the new method is better as it encourages critical thinking and allows the learner to determine the answer in a variety of ways.

Critics of new math argue that students cannot even begin the critical thinking process if they do not have a grasp of simple math concepts. Vocal parents complain that they cannot help their children with homework because the new math might as well be a new language.

Some parents have enrolled their children into specialized math courses like Kumon. Others have decided to teach their children the multiplication tables in spite of the school’s new methodology. In both cases, parents contend that their child’s marks improve dramatically once exposed to the old method.

So which method is better? Here is my take. I am a product of the old and I take exception to the characterization of the multiplication table as memorization. Years ago I was a literacy tutor and the orientation included a numerical literacy module which re-visited the multiplication table.

It was through this module that I discovered the multiplication table from 1 to 10 was not strict memorization. Rather it was a grid of patterns which were not difficult to learn (not memorize). An obvious pattern is the “5” times table, where all the answers end with the numbers 0 or 5.

There may be merit with the new math methodology, but the implementation by school boards has failed to gain acceptance by its primary audience – the students and the parents. I see parallels between this implementation and the Canadian government’s switch to the metric system in the 1970s, which I think was a good move.

While officially a metric nation, what has evolved over 40 years of conversion is Canada adopting a hybrid metric-imperial standard. We measure our distances in kilometres, yet all Canadian vehicles are still sold with speed gauges in miles and kilometres.  Temperature is measured in Celsius, but we still think of our weight in pounds and our height in feet.

So while officially metric, the Canadian government has never really discouraged or eliminated the imperial standard. This, I believe, is the path school boards should take.  New math is the official standard, yes. But do not throw away the old methods. Both can, and should, co-exist.


Stereotypes: No longer in literacy or hockey players

I love things that defy convention or stereotypes.

Captain Oiler or Captain Environment?

When he’s not playing hockey, Andrew Ference is an environmental activist. He created the NHL’s carbon neutral program, bicycles to practices, and is involved in various activities promoting green living.



A Rocket Scientist Playing in the NHL?

There are several former hockey players who, during their playing years, were involved in activities or professions that one wouldn’t normally link to an athlete.

Joe Juneau graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering before starting his NHL career with the Boston Bruins. In short, he was a rocket scientist playing professional hockey. Since his retirement, Juneau runs a hockey program in Northern Quebec for Inuit youth, with a major focus on academics.



Hockey, Politics, and Literacy

The NHL has produced a former player and a former coach who have served as federal politicians: Ken Dryden was the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of York from 2005 to 2011; and Jacques Demers has been a Senator since 2008. Both have notable ties to literacy.

Ken Dryden is better known as the goalie for the Montreal Canadien’s Stanley Cup teams of the 1970s. During his playing years, Dryden finished his law degree.

At the height of his career, Dryden published his first book, Face-off at the Summit, his memoirs on the 1972 Canada-Russia series. After retirement he published five more non-fiction books covering the topics of hockey, education and politics. His most famous, The Game, was adapted into a 6-part documentary by the CBC.

A more direct link to literacy is the story of Jacque Demers. Demers had a twenty year coaching career in the NHL, highlighted with a Stanley Cup win with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. Throughout his career, Demers had a dark secret – he could not read or write.

Demers was a product of an abusive home and dropped out of school in the 8th grade. He masked his secret and the shame of his low literacy skills with a gregarious personality and a passion for the game.

During his coaching career, Demers employed tricks to compensate for his limited writing and reading skills. He would tell his players that he wasn’t a big “Xs and Os” type, and would position the players on the ice rather than write their names on a hockey diagram. When ordering food on the road, Demers would insist on eating at the same restaurants, where he memorized the menu items by their numbers.

Near the end of his hockey career, Demers was the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The GM position involved negotiating and reviewing player contracts. Demers’ personality allowed him to negotiate contracts with ease. When it actually came to draw up the contract on paper, he would defer the task to his assistants.

By 1984, at the beginning of his second marriage, Demers revealed his dark secret to his new wife and his adult kids. Everyone was stunned and amazed that he was able to craft a successful hockey career with this limitation. Demers decided it was time to address his limited reading skills and enrolled in a literacy program.

By 2005, Demers revealed publically his struggles with literacy, and how he overcame them with the support of his family. Now retired from hockey, he began a second career as a literacy advocate. In 2008, having raised the profile of literacy in Quebec, Demers was appointed to the Senate and is still a Senator today.

From a literacy and life perspective, Demers is a Senator whose story is uplifting and inspirational.