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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2010

Math phobics, take heart: New book offers help

There are two kinds of people in the world and you can apply that cliche to many things in life. People either like the Yankees or they don't ... or lima beans ... or subtitled movies ... or Apple products.

Certainly one of the biggest dividers among the human population is math. You either like math or you don't, though, anecdotally speaking, it seems the majority of people fall into the latter category.

It's not the numbers themselves that tend to turn off people. 15. 24. 33. 5. 109. What's problematic about that? But put those same numbers in an algebraic formula with some letters thrown in — say 15x24 / by -33+5 * a -109 — and watch those with an aversion to mathematics begin to perspire.

It shouldn't be this way, says Mike Askew, a professor at Monash University Australia and co-author of the new book, Old Dogs, New Math: Homework Help for Puzzled Parents (The Experiment, $15.95)

"It is not so much that people don't like math but they don't like the way it was taught," he said in an e-mail interview. "When you ask people to talk about what happened in their math learning, they often refer to the point at which it all started to go wrong for them. Fractions or algebra are typical breakpoints. In the book we work on games and activities that parents and children can work on together that help understanding as well as skill development."

Old Dogs, New Math is aimed at math-troubled parents, helping them grasp the complexities of arithmetic in easy ways, and to understand the new ways in which math is taught in the classroom.

Toledo Public Schools within the last few years instituted a new paradigm for kindergarten through eighth grades to learn arithmetic. Called Math Expressions, the method teaches students to "decompose" math and "to really pay attention to" the process in finding a problem's solution, said Susan MacMillan, director of math and gifted education for TPS.

Put succinctly: Remember how important it was to "show your work," as math teachers would say? Math Expressions is an extension of just that.

For example, multiply the numbers 32 X 67. The old method, what Ms. MacMillan calls a "shortcut," would mean simply multiplying the two numbers together for an answer of 2,144. Math Expressions, though, requires that students work through the process. One method is to decompose the numbers to 60 plus 7 and 30 plus 2. Then multiply 60 times 30, which equals 1,800. Then multiply 60 and 2 for 120. Then multiply 7 and 30 for 210 followed by 7 and 2 for 14. Add the answers together — 1,800, 120, 210, and 14 — for the final total of 2,144.

It's an admittedly long way to reach the same answer, Ms. MacMillan acknowledges, something she hears from parents all the time, who want to know why TPS is making math even more difficult and cumbersome.

The simple answer: It's for the students.

"What we're noticing in fourth and fifth grade is our kids start losing their math abilities," Ms. MacMillan said. "Look at the Ohio Achievement Test [scores]. Third-graders do pretty well, fourth-graders usually do pretty well, but starting in fifth and sixth grade things start falling apart ... Math is getting harder."

In third grade, perhaps a student is asked to learn 20 elements of mathematics. The next year, the student is expected to retain that information and add, say, another 40 new elements on top of it. It's the same for fifth grade and up, all of which can lead to confusion and math anxiety for many students.

"Kids don't understand what they're doing, then all the procedures get mixed up together in their heads. They don't remember, ‘Do I add now or add later?'" Ms. MacMillan said.

Math Expressions, she said, helps to eliminate those issues by reinforcing the full process in an equation.

"They really develop a number sense," Ms. MacMillan said. "They start to think like mathematicians. Their thinking reflects their understanding of the concepts and not just rote memorization of the procedures.

"The research on learning math is pretty clear. If you introduce a process or a procedure before the kids are familiar with the concepts behind it then they don't care to learn the concepts. They just want the shortcut. That's part of the problem ...."

While it's too early to say the effect — if any — Math Expressions has had on TPS students, Ms. MacMillan said a study by the U.S. Department of Education found that first and second-graders who learned arithmetic through Math Expressions performed better than any other groups.

Teaching Math Expressions, though, has its challenges, including re-educating teachers and parents to the new ways of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, which includes classes for TPS instructors, as well as "math coaches" for those teachers as well as parents.

While such a method may seem radical, new and improved ways of doing math certainly aren't new. "When I brought math home my mom would say, ‘Well, this is not the way we did it,'" said Mike Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "I don't think this is a new phenomenon at all."

To make the learning process easier for moms and dads as well as their children, Mr. Shaughnessy suggests parents who are intimidated by math have their child explain as best he/she can what it is they are being asked to do and where they are stuck in the problem. Then for the parent and child to work on finding the solution together.

And if a parent doesn't know the answer? That's OK as well.

"At some point it could be OK to say, ‘Let's talk to the teacher about this and find out,'" he said.

As for those who cringe at the sight of an equation, Mr. Shaughnessy said to convince someone to feel otherwise — that math isn't something to be afraid of — will take time and a shift in our collective opinions, as our attitude and disposition towards math are not very good.

The National Council recently started to fight back about that negative cultural attitude, which means targeting the biggest culprit: parents.

"Adults shouldn't really broadcast that they were not good at math," he said. "We shouldn't make that a very good thing."

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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