Monday, November 20, 2000

Stupid math tricks

I got a note on Friday from my daughter’s teacher. It expressed concern that our girl was having trouble with a couple of exercises in her math book. Since the teacher has given us a set of textbooks to use for incessantly drilling arithmetic, I was able to flip to the pair of problem problems. What was it, I wondered? Addition? Subtraction? Were they finally starting on multiplication? Did it involve counting money, as they had earlier in the chapter? The teacher mentioned my daughter’s difficulty in working in steps: Perhaps it was some involved word problem requiring addition and then subraction.

And then I found the questions in question, and this is what they were:

“I am a 3-digit number less than 300. My tens digit is less than my hundreds digit and my ones digit is less than my tens digit. Who am I?”

“I am a number between 600 and 700. My ones digit is 4. My tens digit is the difference between my ones and hundreds digit. Who am I?”

I am confused and befuddled by the sort of things that are considered math these days. I am disturbed that a simple ability to add and subtract is put on an even track with the ability to do parlor tricks. Who am I?

I am the parent of a 3rd grader.

I thought that maybe I was the only one having trouble with this stuff, but on Friday night I ran into the mother of a girl who was in 2nd grade with my daughter last year at a different school, and we got to talking about how hard 3rd grade was, and specifically how hard the math was, and she said in exasperation, “This front-end estimation! That’s where you round everything down, right? What is that?” Who knows? The various techniques our kids were taught for estimation made approximately no sense to me. After going to the trouble of teaching how to round to the nearest ten a few chapters before, the textbook was now telling them to estimate by either rounding both numbers of an equation up or both numbers down. Why, oh why? It seems designed to be confusing, and to make you forget how to round properly. Plus, you don’t get a very accurate estimate.

Apparently we two aren’t the only ones confused. This mother mentioned that one night, her daughter brought home both a math worksheet and her math textbook. When asked why she needed both, the daughter reported that the teacher told them to bring the book home too, in case their parents didn’t get it. Frankly, I doubt the book will help much. Perhaps they need to set up night-school classes.

Now, parental confusion with the way children are taught arithmetic has been going on at least as long as the “new math” movement when I was in school, so there’s no reason I should expect to be on top of this. But as the parent of a learning-disabled child, I do have to have a clue, because she so needs me to give her one. I find myself giving advice and instructions on concepts I don’t understand, and I wonder if I’m re-teaching it wrong--or making it even more befuddling, if that’s possible. And I also wonder if a lot of this stuff, including “who am I” number games, is worth reteaching at all. At any rate, I can’t begin to imagine how I would go about showing her the right way to figure it.

Personally, I can’t wait for multiplicaiton. That, I know how to do. I think.

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