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Ten Myths About Whole Math


Q. Is there broad consensus on how we're teaching math these days?


No, there are two opposing camps. The "whole math" methods developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), is under fire from New York City HOLD (Honest Open Logical Decisions), which favors a more traditional approach.


The latter is made up of mathematicians and scientists, K-12 teachers of mathematics, educational researchers, and parents nationwide. They claim to have defined 10 myths about math education that form the basis for the NCTM's standards, which they vigorously oppose. To capsulize the positions of proponents of whole math vs. proponents of traditional math:


n       Only what students discover for themselves is truly learned.

No; kids need direct instruction of math concepts.


n       Children should invent their own ways of doing math.

No; standard skills such as long division are crucial to higher-level math and must be taught explicitly.


n       Children need problem-solving rather than "drill and kill."

No; there's no getting around the need for mastery of basic skills in order to do the conceptual type math.


n       NCTM math is better for learning-disabled children.

No; they need structure and order even more than other kids.


n       NCTM math is better for disadvantaged children.

No; their teachers disagree; they need basic skills.


n       Calculator use is a great way to build math ability.

No; the better the math student on the secondary level, the less calculators were used before sixth grade.


n       Foreign countries beat us on math tests because they "cherry-pick" their top students to go against our entire student bodies.

No; participants are randomly selected.


n       Math should be taught "in context," with stories.

No; they're a tool but shouldn't take center stage, or students won't have sufficient understanding of the math principles involved, which are abstractions and don't need a real-world "context."


n       NCTM methods are what higher-performing countries use.

No; math class in Singapore and Japan is like the skills-based methods the grassroots group proposes.


n       Research shows NCTM methods are effective.

No; that "research" is self-serving, opinionated and far from conclusive; it looks effective because assessments have been modified to fit the NCTM method, instead of revealing what kids really should know and be able to do.


Homework: Read documentation at


By Susan Darst Williams Math 05 2008


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