300. New Math

Now, as I write article #300, I’m remembering an experiment that was introduced to schools. Early in my teaching career, there was something called “new math.” It wasn’t really so new, but it was new in the elementary curriculum. The basic premise, I think, was that children shouldn’t learn to be stuck in base ten. They ought to explore other bases, and become flexible mathematicians.
The idea had some merit, and I bet it was successful in some communities, where teachers, administrators, and parents worked together on it. I remember my own attempt to learn it and teach it. For me, both were easy and fun. I made up a story about a planet called Base Four, where everyone had four fingers instead of ten. Most of us on earth have ten fingers, so we count,
“1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.” We don’t have a digit to represent the final finger; we move into the tens place.
On Base Four, they count, “1,2,3,10.” Like us, they don’t have a digit to represent the final finger. Of course, they have to move into the fours place sooner than we have to move into the tens place. I, personally, am glad I live on a planet where most people have ten fingers, but I know that’s because I’m used to base ten. I’m sure that if I’d grown up on Base Four, I’d be used to their system.
The metric system and many other systems we use on our planet are easier to use because of our ten-fingeredness. Many adults work hard to stop children from counting with their fingers, but those flexible appendages sure are convenient, aren’t they? I still use them to keep track of things I’m counting. Not when there are fewer than ten items; so far, I can keep track of one to nine in my head. But when I have to count 73 items, sometimes I’ll let each finger represent ten of them.
I’m not as crazy about math as some people I know, but I’ve always had a knack for simple arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and algebra (simple, for me). I didn’t have to take math in college, and so I didn’t; I passed some test they gave the incoming class, and whatever they had planned to teach non-majors, I already knew. By some people’s standards, I’m great at math, but I’ve known people I’ve considered great at math, and they were way beyond me.
I think the way teachers teach math is going to keep evolving, and I think it should. That can be annoying and disorienting for parents who are trying to help their children with homework. But as we discover more about children’s learning and more about mathematics, we can’t ignore these discoveries when we plan curriculum. We adults are going to have to open our minds and learn.
On Base Four, this is not article #300. It’s article #10,230. As our world (and our universe?) changes, we’ve got to be ready. New math is really any math you don’t already know; as soon as you know it, it starts turning into old math.

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