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Finally: A Retreat Away From 'Fuzzy Math'


Q. What's behind the switcheroo by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics? They're now pushing a "back to the basics" approach and advising teachers to go back to old-fashioned drill and practice, and to downplay the creative problem-solving activities that they were promoting and that have been popular for a while. When did we ever retreat from the basics, so that we have to return to them now?


Ironically, it was that same group - which represents 100,000 educators - that caused the nation's schools to minimize traditional math nearly two decades ago, and move to what critics have called "fuzzy math" activities in schools that are heavy on Political Correctness, calculators, group projects, writing and other nontraditional classroom approaches.


The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics ( touched off the "math wars" back in 1989 when it issued controversial recommendations on how to teach math. They declared to the public that "whole math" activities were better than the tried-and-true methods of memorization, drill, practice and systematically adding skill on skill, which had been the foundation of math education for centuries.


The newer standards pushed by the math educators' group called for pupils to rely on calculators, for example, to do calculations that, in previous days, they would have worked out for themselves using paper and pencil. The educators' group said that kids got bogged down in the calculating process and didn't think well enough about real-world applications of math. Students were allowed to use calculators in standardized tests, allowing them to get decent scores, which concealed their growing math illiteracy from parents and the public.


According to the group, "rote" methods such as memorizing the multiplication tables and taking 100-question timed tests are boring for kids. Instead, they have pushed "discovery learning" - letting groups of pupils talk about situations involving math and coming up with their own solutions in their own ways, rather than showing them how to apply math principles to those situations. Children were taught that to estimate the answer to a problem was just as good as actually working out the answer. Individual thought and study was replaced with group dynamics, which garbled up the learning outcomes for many students.


Naturally, kids are going to come up with convoluted ways to find answers, especially when working in a group. And naturally, convoluted ways are going to produce wrong answers. But the educators told the public for 25 years that it's the process, not the product, that matters. Learning to work in a group was more important than learning math principles, they claimed. If students got the wrong answer, but used an interesting process to come up with it, educators were happy.


But no more. After years of heated criticism and debate from math traditionalists, including a large group of math professors in colleges around the country, and in the face of America's sharp decline from the top of the world in student math achievement, to the doldrums far behind Asian countries in particular, as measured by internationally standardized tests, the group has come out with new recommendations that finally stress the fundamentals.


Homework: Learn all about the "math wars" on and see a good review of this longtime war over math standards on


By Susan Darst Williams Math 06 2008


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