$#!& New Math!

      3 Comments on $#!& New Math!

I got to the tutoring center a little early this morning, and spent some time perusing the bulletin board. One of the things I found was a flier posted for the tutors, offering guidelines for helping with math, especially the lower-level math classes. Every single bullet point that was listed made me grind my teeth. I thought I would share a few examples, just to see if it made other math geeks as frustrated as it made me.

When showing someone how to add fractions, you are not supposed to teach them how to find a common denominator using prime roots.

When explaining the Fundamental Order of Operations, you are not supposed to teach “Please Remember My Dear Aunt Sally”.

When multiplying two binomials, do not use FOIL.

When explaining slope to someone, do not use Y2-Y1/X2-X1.

When solving rational equations, do not use common denominators.

When solving trinomial equations, do not teach the student how to factor the equation.

(Pause for cursing and spitting. Take deep breaths. Om, mani, padme, hum…)

I think I sorta get the intent behind the list. The idea, especially for the lowest level math classes, is that a lot of these students have already struggled with a number of math classes in the past, with little success. So there’s a real interest in finding alternative techniques that might work better for the less gifted math students. Okay, I can get behind that goal, but the alternatives offered often feel much more convoluted and error prone, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Here’s an example. One of the early lessons in the lowest level math class involves converting fractions to percentages. Easy, right? Do the division (they are welcome and encouraged to use calculators) and then move the decimal and you’re done. Not so fast, brainiac! That’s considered too advanced. Instead, you’re supposed to finesse the denominator of the fraction to be sorta kinda close to 100, and then read the numerator as the percentage. So, 17/24? Well, if you multiply 24 x 4, that gets you kinda close to 100. So, the numerator becomes 17 x 4, which is 68, so let’s call it roughly 68%. Not only is that not easier (again, IMNSHO), but the result is sloppy compared to doing it the easier, accurate way. Sheesh!

I’ll say again, I am completely behind presenting concepts in different ways, over and over again until you find a way of relating the material that clicks for a given student. But I can’t imagine that the guidelines we’ve been offered actually make the material any easier for anyone. It just kills me to think that the most at-risk math students are being hamstrung by someone’s efforts to dumb down the material. It feels condescending and counter productive.

I might as well confess here and now; I break darn near every single one of those rules, multiple times per hour of tutoring. And the students I help seem to thrive on it; seems like every day I get asked if I would become someone’s personal tutor outside the official tutoring center.

Footnote: Yes, I know this has nothing to do with The New Math. It’s an analogy. We’ll cover those later in the term, in English tutoring.

3 thoughts on “$#!& New Math!

  1. satyridae

    I’m so far from being a math geek that it’s not funny, but still I feel qualified to respond to this since I’m actually in the target audience for those lame-ass rules. Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is one of my favorite mnemonics- right up there with King Philip Cuts Open Five Green Snakes. Most of the other rules I have at least a passing familiarity with- enough that I could look them up and use them if presented with math that threatened to make me cry. Except fractions to percent, I just can’t seem to remember how to do that at all, so I usually (for instance when tipping) figure out ten percent then halve the ten and add the ten percent and the half of ten percent. Pathetic, innit?

    I think what I’m trying to say, as someone who has been somewhat successfully tutored by you in the past, is t’hell with not using the rules. They work. They are simpler than the alternatives, and even criers-during-numeric-operations like me can grasp them for the space of one class term.

    1. thatsassylassie

      I gotta agree. As a person who is 18 years out of high school (which was the last time I “really” took math, and then just took a few terms of it last year, I had to totally reacquaint myself with algebra, and it was painful as I am not a math-brained person. If it were not for some of those types of rules I wouldn’t have done as semi-decently in the classes as I did. This whole “guesstimating” crap they are trying to push is both impractical, confusing and time-wasting in my opinion. I got a small taste of it in Math 95 and I was calling bullshit immediately.

  2. Anonymous

    schooldad weighs in

    As a former engineer, math tutor, and high school math teacher (and self-proclaimed math geek), I have to agree that the flier you describe sounds a little goofy. Not that some of the “guidelines” might not be helpful for some students, but the whole point of tutoring is trying to find something that works well for a particular student. If FOIL is confusing for student A but not for student B, then use FOIL with student B and find something else for student A.

    My guess is that the folks running the tutoring center are trying to offer an approach to tutoring that any tutor (maybe even tutors who aren’t that good) could use, just by following the recipe; “Do steps 1, 2, and 3 as outlined here, and the student will understand.” Unfortunately, tutoring generally requires a little more effort than that.


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