Stupid Math

Disclaimer:  If you are a teacher/educator of any kind, this post is not meant to offend you.  If you are an education Nazi who is somehow involved in the ridiculous crap I discuss in this post, then I’m actively seeking to offend you.  And your mama. 

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the genius I am today.

Hard to believe, I know.

When I was in the third grade, my teacher called me up to her desk and told me that I was doing so poorly on the multiplication tests that we took each Friday that if I didn’t bring my grade up on the next test, I was going to fail math.

I was (and am) a nerd and immediately went home and made my mother take me to the store to buy flashcards so that I could memorize my times tables, as they were called then.

Today they probably call them “graphical illustrations of multiplicatory mathematics” or some other name that demonstrates that in the effort to make the children in our country smarter, we’ve really just added a bunch of smart-sounding but meaningless words and a butt-load of unnecessary steps that serve no purpose.

(I’m a little bitter right now.  Bear with me.  Or don’t.)

Anyway, I got my flashcards and sat in bible study with my family and memorized the hell out of some times tables.  Even back then I knew I was memorizing the hell out of them and felt a little guilty for thinking hell-ish words in a bible study.  Regardless, there was some multiplication ass-kicking going on and I was a freaking memorization ninja.

I went to school on Friday and scored a perfect 100 on my math test and never had a problem with multiplication for the rest of my school career.  Told you I was a genius.

I struggled a bit more with Trig (can’t remember how to spell the whole word and too lazy to look it up) and once had a meltdown the morning of a test because my calculator kept getting all of my sine, cosine, and tangent calculations wrong.  So I went to my teacher and told her that my calculator was messing up and she told me that I was just a stupid moron and wasn’t using the calculator properly.

Let me just say that since that class in the 11th grade, I have never needed to know the sine, cosine nor tangent of anything.  I actually don’t even remember what sine, cosine and tangent are.  And I honestly don’t even know what Trig is the study of.

So, really, who’s the moron?  Me, a highly unsuccessful, unpaid blogger who is read by literally tens of people every day, or a woman who made her living teaching people antiquated skills they will never need again?

Let me get to my point now that I’ve gone off on this tangent.  (Nope, not the same tangent.  At least I don’t think it is.)

The Good One is now in the third grade, and they are working on multiplication of double digits, but I swear to you on The Pioneer Woman’s dog’s life, they have never worked on their single-digit multiplication.  He has never brought home a single homework sheet or quiz that had anything to do with multiplication.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday The Good One brought home this “Multiplication Circuit” that they worked on in class.

Have a look-see.

What in the name of Mary Queen of Scots is this?

What the jack is going on with the lines and the dots?  Are these the units and rods mentioned on the right?  Does a simple question really require so much flipping artwork?  And are our children really so stupid that multiplication questions have to be dumbed down to the addition of dots and lines?

After The Good One showed this to me I said, “This is the stupidest way of doing math that I’ve ever seen.”

He said, “I’m telling my teacher you said that.”

He’s such a narc.

The old-fashioned multiplication problem on the left is my handwriting.  I wrote that on the paper and asked The Good One if he’s ever seen multiplication problems written like that, and he said, “Never.”

Now, if this ridiculously long-handed way of doing multiplication actually helped The Good One get an answer correct, then I’d be all for it.  But watch what happens when he’s asked the same question in a different order.

He got the flipping thing wrong!  Hella lot of good those stupid rods and units are now.

I realize that The Good One made the mistake, but is all of this really better than making the kids learn the single-digit multiplication factors and then teaching them to carry the one?

I said “carry the one” to The Good One and he looked at me like I was speaking Hebrew.

The Good One said that to solve math problems they have to use their “strategies.”  I have no idea what a strategy is.  I also have no idea why a simple math problem would require a strategy.  It’s not like it’s war.

General:  What’s 12 x 8, Soldier?

Soldier:  Well, Sir, I’m going to employ my strategies and figure that out for you.

General:  Be quick, Soldier.

Soldier:  It’s going to take me a few minutes because I have some rods and units to draw and then I’m going to have to add them together because I never learned how to multiply.  Then I’m probably going to have to double-check my addition because if I don’t draw the correct number of rods and units, I sometimes get the answer wrong.

I wonder if my frustration with the way kids are being taught today has to do with the fact that I waited longer to have kids and the gap between the learning styles has just gotten so wide that I can’t make up the difference.

How can I help The Good One with his homework if I don’t understand what’s expected?

I often wonder if my mom and dad felt the same way when they looked at my homework when I was a kid.

Mom: [To Dad] Would you look at this?  She’s expected to memorize all of these “times tables.”  What the hell is a “times table”?

Dad:  What?  She can’t use an abacus? How are we supposed to help her if she can’t use an abacus?

I guess I’m going to have to break down and teach The Good One his times tables myself. I should have put him in private school the minute I realized our school district’s literacy coaches were a bunch of illiterate Nimrods.

I certainly don’t blame The Good One’s teacher for my issues because I know she’s doing what she’s required to do.  And if you’re a teacher, you may be able to tell me that there’s a perfectly logical reason that kids are taught to do multiplication this stupid stupid stupid way.

However, if you were in any way involved with the determination that it takes four steps and half a page of hieroglyphics to do a simple math problem, then you’d better hope I don’t ever meet you in a dark alley because you and I will throw down and I will take a “rod” and stab you in your “unit.”

You’ve been warned.

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40 thoughts on “Stupid Math

  1. Disclaimer: I am not a math teacher nor an elementary teacher (I am a former high school English teacher turned stay-at-home-mom). But I do know a little bit about the theory here.

    My understanding is that, at least theoretically, teaching math this way is an attempt to illustrate the concept of multiplication – so kids understand why 12 x 8 = 92, instead of just memorizing the fact. When I was in elementary school (early 90s in Canada, though I imagine in the US it was taught similarly then), we learned the concept of “groups” – if you have 12 groups of 8 apples each, how many apples do you have? Our teacher explained multiplication as “doing addition faster.” We did do the “rods” and “units” thing, but only with actual tactile pieces – single pieces you could snap together in rods of 10 and then attach those rods together to make squares of 100 and then cubes of 1000. This makes math “real” for kids in a way that simply memorizing multiplication facts on a times table doesn’t do. But (at least for me, as a not intuitively-grasping-math-concepts kind of kid), the actual physical concept is what helped me do it on paper and then eventually in my head (and memorizing). It would really depend on what’s happening in the classroom, before this kind of thing gets assigned, to see if it’s actually worth teaching this way (a lot of kids get to high school and have to do things like trig and have no idea why formulas exist and the gap in their education comes back to these elementary math concepts…they think math facts are magic or something and have a hard time getting that numbers represent anything real).

    I hope I’m not being too ridiculous for my first comment here and then inviting hate…I came here from your guest post on Ginny’s blog and have chuckled at (I think) every entry you’ve posted. But I do know (admittedly a small bit) about teaching so I thought I would at least try to explain the why (though the execution can, honestly, totally suck. And ditto sheets have a tendency to suck no matter what subject.)

    Hopefully any future comments will be a heck of a lot less serious…

    • I actually really appreciate this. I honestly figured the school district was just trying to make me crazy. You are welcome to comment anytime!

      • Thanks! bluzdude said it much more succinctly than I did, though. 🙂

        I have to say I am impressed that you have the time to blog. I pretty much spend any minute my LO is not getting into trouble (i.e. sleeping) trying to catch up on my own sleep. But he’s only 1 so…maybe there’s hope??

      • There is hope! I couldn’t have done any of this when The Beast was 1. Plus, now I let him watch TV all day. 🙂

  2. Like Tom Lehrer once said about “New Math,” “The object is to understand what you’re doing… RATHER THAN to get the right answer.”

    (He also once said, “Base 8 is just like Base 10, really… if you’re missing two fingers.”)

  3. Maybe this explains why American kids are falling behind other countries in math. Do these other countries also use the new math? If they do, my theory is wrong … American kids are just dumber or the teachers are inept in teaching the new math. Did Einstein use new math? I’ll bet he memorized tables and it didn’t seem to hinder his learning. At one time you could really mess with the minds of these “new math” kids when they were working as cashiers. For example, if your bill was $3.91 and you gave them $4.01 so you wouldn’t get any pennies, it would freak them out. However, the new cash registers eliminate the need for a mathematical calculation by the cashier.

  4. If I were you, I would be pissed. That is the stupidiest way ever to do math. My daughter is in 2nd grade and we have conquered single, double and triple addition/subtraction. We have 8 weeks left in our school year, and the final 4 weeks will be an intro to multiplication. I thank the good lord it is done with flash cards and in the normal way. Your school district sucks, I would be a raging alcoholic. Good luck to The Good One and you!

    • Amen! I’m getting the kid flashcards tomorrow and he will start memorizing. If they want him to be able to prove his answers by doing 4 extra steps, fine. But the kid has to just flat out memorize the stupid facts first!

  5. Do they call it “every day math”? When we first moved to our district I about died when I saw the new math. I had no clue what they were talking about. They give you a math book to keep at home for the school year… which allows ME to look up the concept their teaching. Super helpful! Doing homework with a 4th and 5th grader … means I keep my iPhone near so I can do a quick search to figure out what in the world they are asking. Z actually said, “You don’t get this do you? Our teacher said you learned it the old fashioned way!”

  6. I’m a teacher currently teaching her class multiplication. I’m all for using manipulatives for teaching a concept, but once that concept is understood, it’s time to start memorizing the facts. Yes, old fashioned memorizing! Get the flashcards.

  7. My girlfriend who has a 3rd grader as well was just lamenting this to me yesterday! Her daughter’s school basically just said, “Teach them the times tables.” and left the parents to do it. I’d rather do that than this weirdness. (My strategy at the time was to write them out about 62,000 times — it worked just fine.) And yes, I have to multiply all the time, and know how, and I can even solve for x in a pinch, but trig, calculus, even geometry — not part of my life.

  8. I still can’t do multiplication. Single digits I can mostly, and nines I can only do on my hands, but double digits I can’t do AT ALL. I was stuck somewhere between old-math and new-math, I think, because I learned about 4 different ways to do it and didn’t get any of them, and I can’t memorize at all. I have never been any good at math. I kind of get geometry, but I guess a lot of the answers. I can’t do algebra with any reliability, which is basically doom in the modern world. I don’t even know what sine and cosine means.

    I’m 24, btw. I was homeschooled, but that wasn’t the problem. The books were useful. My dad is great at math and helped me. I had tutors. I still can’t do it, and it has plagued me through high school and college. I barely got through college algebra, and my current degree was chosen on the basis that it only has two math requirements (or, quantification, as it’s called).

    I wish there were better teachers. I wish they would just leave the way math is taught alone! I support innovation, but not when it ends up making things more complicated.

  9. First of all, I LOVE reading your blog. I am a mom to nine, three biological and 6 adopted. Four of them are still at home, and 3 are now in their teens. When I read your posts, it helps me to chuckle a bit at our adventures. I know all about those expensive Gem Trees! As for this post, I had to smile when remembering our first years at homeschooling. I was in tears after three days of trying to figure out what the heck they meant by “regrouping”. It took me days to realize that they were talking about “borrowing”! New math? I wonder how we all managed to get through school using that old fashioned stuff. My other pet peeve in teaching math, estimating and mental math. I cringe when we get to that section. Give me the old fashioned memorization any day. Thanks for sharing your crazy days with us. It makes it a little easier to smile when I have days like that!

    • First of all, GOD BLESS YOU! I am seriously on the edge with two kids. You deserve a medal or a crazy ridiculous prize for having nine kids, homeschooling them and still being a functioning human being. Seriously. And your comment on the estimating made me laugh out loud because The Good One just missed three questions on a math test for not estimating correctly. My question, as always, is, “Why can’t you just put the correct answer down? Why does it have to be an estimate?” God help us all!

  10. I have no experience in anything other than making it through school with some pretty good grades…but I have to say this: Explaining WHY something is the way it is and giving them actual hands-on examples to show if you have 2 items and add 2 more and 2 more it equals 6 is great. Memorization without knowing why or what you’re memorizing is no good. But I think AFTER you’ve explained it to them, then send them on their merry way with the flashcards or some “My dog Snoopy, he does tricks, 7 times 8 is 56” rhymes.
    Yesterday while in Sam’s Club, I was trying to figure out if it was any cheaper to buy Diet Pepsi in the 24 pack for $15.17 or just to buy it in 6 packs (so I have less to lug up the stairs to my 2nd floor apartment)…and guess what? I did a simple calculation in my head right there in the middle of the store!!!! No 8-1/2×11 paper full of diagrams and lines either!! Probably the only thing I ever actually use math for in the real world, but oh well… 🙂
    And by the way, I also came here a few months back from Ginny, but I think I’m hooked on you even more (shhhhhhh….don’t tell!!!). And I LOVED your guest post the other day!!

    • Okay. First, I need to find the rest of those memorization rhymes. That is awesome. And I only use math when deciding which diapers to buy. And thank you for the kinds words on both this blog and my guest post. It was fun to write.

  11. My daugher is in 1st grade and I was wondering what this “strategies” business was all about. So now I know it will continue. Super fantastic! Thanks for keeping me in the know!

  12. Your Trig (don’t know either) comments remind of an old quote from Fran Lebowitz something like: “Refuse to remain conscious in math class. Trust me, there is no Algebra in real life.”

  13. Another reason to move up here. H had to memorize his multiplication tables! Bam. I can give you 50 million more reasons for ya. Tell Ginny Slims!

  14. This was so well said, I’m going to print out a few copies and send them to my kids’ teachers (anonymously, of course – I’m not crazy)! One time my son came home with multiplication problems that looked like a drawing of a garden trellis. He has also never heard of carrying the one or remainders – how am I supposed to help him with his homework when I can’t tell what the heck he’s supposed to be doing? I knew I was in trouble when he was in kindergarden and I learned that there’s no such thing as a “diamond” anymore. “It’s a rhombus, Mommy.” Like hell it is. It’s a diamond.

  15. I feel really lucky that I have a smart teenager in the house who I can force to help the little kids with their homework as needed. Don’t ask me where he gets it from. I’m pretty sure *I* need a tutor. I find myself wringing my hands and breaking out in a cold sweat when I hear the inevitable, “Can you help me with my homework Mommy?” My “strategy” is usually to say, “Here – have an after school snack! And go outside to play! Or watch some TV! Yeah! Something educational! Alex wants to help you when he gets home from practice!” I get very exclamatory when I try to pass the buck… Our school district has a meeting at the beginning of every school year to coach the parents on the new math AND reading strategies. And with four kids who are pretty spread out in age, I will say that the strategies change pretty much every year. Uh, I’m pretty sure I already passed 3rd grade math by the skin of my teeth – I can’t handle the stress of learning it all over again every few years! It’s exactly like that movie Groundhog Day! Except not really. *sigh* Apparently, I’ll never been done with school math.

    • I look forward to that coaching for math. I have already endured 2 coaching session on RIGGS. (some literacy think I still have not clue about).

  16. This new math business is the stupidest thing I have ever seen/heard of…of course, I HATE math and anything associated with it, but still….what’s wrong with just doing the math the way God intended – I’m not even sure I understood that worksheet. Milk-a-what?

  17. I think manipulatives are nice in the classroom when they use them to show the concept, but after spending weeks drawing stacks of ten and little blocks with my first grader, and drawing endless arrays with my second grader, I am done. Using the current array strategy, all my 3rd grader was doing was trying to add in his head and getting mixed up somewhere around the 5th or sixth addition. So I just started quizzing him over and over until he was sick of it. Know what? He aced every test the day after I got sick of the arrays. It is good to understand, but crazy to spend so much time focusing on it.

  18. You’re all forgetting that somewhere in a gray office with no windows, sits some greasy haired PhD in Education, who has to justify his salary. So every few years, he jacks up things just enough, and cites enough “journals” to justify continuously messing with these concepts, so that it looks like he’s doing something. I’m positive there is no other good reason. Because it is that stupid.

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