What Was Wrong with the Old Way?

Justin Brown

We’ve all had those conversations in which someone laments that math isn’t taught the same way it was “in the good ole days.” Our understanding of best practices in mathematics has changed, and change can be difficult for everyone.And it can be especially difficult to a parent who just worked a long day and is now trying to help their student with homework, using strategies they never learned in school. 

So how can we help them understand why we’ve changed our strategies for teaching math? I have two key points I try to share with families that have helped to make these conversations productive: comparing math literacy with reading literacy, and the evolution of best practices. 

For many years we taught and learned math on a surface level through drills and timed tests. While this practice may have appeared to develop fluency, it didn’t establish a firm math foundation upon which students could build throughout their education. However, in other subjects we provide students with building blocks to help them understand how to construct and deconstruct the big picture and how to apply those skills to different situations. In reading we don’t expect children to memorize every word in the dictionary. That’d be absurd! Instead, we teach them phonics so that they know how words are built and they can apply those deeply understood principals to new words they encounter. This firm foundation supports newer and higher levels of reading with a great level of success.

The way we teach math now, in small but rigorous steps, is giving students the means to take on new and varied applications of mathematics with confidence. In short, we are teaching math phonics.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Rick DuFour speak about how education has changed. He shared a great anecdote about his sister that illustrates why change is needed. Around 40 years ago his sister went to have her vision corrected through surgery. At the time, the procedure required razor blades, an exhaustive number of follow-up trips to the surgeon, and about a year to fully heal. This practice was cutting edge at the time. 

Today, if you go to have your vision corrected, they’ll shoot you in the eye with a laser, you’ll go home and take a nap, and usually within 72 hours you’ll have 20/20 vision. Forty years ago we didn’t even know this was possible. The razor blade procedure was not only acceptable, it was considered best practice. If you went to get your vision corrected today and they pulled out a box of blades, it would be considered malpractice. In like fashion, we’ve changed the way we teach math because we know better now. As we continue to research and seek out the best ways to instruct our students, we will encounter change. 

I can’t help but wonder, what will replace the laser?

Justin Brown is a 2nd grade Bridges teacher