Back in the day (you know, the ’80s), most of us were taught there was one way to add, one way to subtract, one way to multiply, and one way to divide. You sat at your desk, listened to the teacher, and did worksheet after worksheet till those formulas were drilled into your brain. There was no “creativity.” Usually, there was no context (how many times did you ask “Why do I need to know this?”). Your parents could be relied upon to help you at least until middle school. And there were definitely no calculators. Um, that was what we called cheating.
Oh, how the times have changed. Just check out this snapshot of math in Terri Gratz’s fourth-grade class at Meadowbrook Elementary School, in Golden Valley, MN: After the kids pull out blue calculators and their student reference books, Gratz says, “Raise your hand if you know which country has the biggest land mass.”
“Russia!” one boy announces.
“Which country has the most people?” asks Gratz.
A girl half raises her hand. “Either India or China?”
“China, right,” Gratz says. “So, how do we figure out what percent of the world’s population lives in China? Which two numbers do we need?”
It’s a tough question, but the class is up to the task: They soon figure out that they need to know how many people live in China compared with the rest of the world. Then they turn to their book to find a population chart. The world’s total population at that time, they learn, is 6,378,000,000. Gratz wants to know if the students think that’s the exact number. The kids smile and roll their eyes. As if! Then they look again to find China’s population: 1,298,840,000.
Throughout the lesson, Gratz and the students have been cheerfully lobbing questions and answers, and she’s clearly delighted that her class enjoys the give-and-take. Soon 28 sets of hands furiously punch numbers into the calculators, and then the first kid gets the answer: about 20 percent. Gratz asks her to come to the front of the class to show how she solved it.
Welcome to the world of “reform math” (the experts call it “inquiry-based math”), a catchall phrase for a group of new methodologies that aim to teach students how to reason their way through a problem instead of simply regurgitating a set of facts and formulas to get the answer (which is how most of us learned). If you have a child in elementary school, she’s probably learning under one of these programs. Think of it this way: If traditional math is a paint-by-numbers replica of the Mona Lisa, reform mathematics is more like performance art, where the audience is invited to paint the canvas. The goal is to engage, excite, experiment, and find creative solutions. Because when kids care about math and understand how it works in real life, experts say, they’ll be more likely to stick with it. More important, that ability to think outside the formula, so to speak, will be absolutely critical when they have to compete in the global economy. (And, given that ranking, the U.S. can use all the edge it can get.)
Now you’re probably thinking “Great! Fabulous! We’re raising the next generation of innovators!” That is, until you actually have to help your child with her homework and find yourself questioning whether you really know how to divide. Their new math looks and sounds very different from ours, and after you get over the shock that many actually get to use calculators, you’ll likely be faced with accusations like “You’re doing it wrong! That’s not how we do it in class!” Elaine Replogle, a mom of three in Eugene, OR, is all too familiar with this kind of frustration: “Because my husband and I don’t know the same methods or terms, the kids tell us we know nothing. And we both have Ph.D.’s!” To banish the frustration, we talked to teachers around the country to get a handle on the basic philosophies of the most widely used math programs so you can feel more prepared and, let’s face it, a little less clueless.