I am a victim of a mathematical experiment gone awry, and my wounds left me with a brain only good for making my living with words.
Do not, under any circumstances, ask me what 128 divided by 13 is or the answer to 8 times 9.
Yes, I had the misfortune to live through the new math debacle of the 1960s in the United States.
The curriculum reform was started with good intentions. Evidently the advent of WWll had revealed legions of young people so poorly schooled in math that many technical jobs in the military were difficult to fill. So educational minds developed a new way of teaching math that was supposed to make it more fun, more inventive and with less rote memorization.
Rather than start this innovative way of learning math at the high school level, or even middle school, when youngsters are becoming more comfortable with deductive reasoning and out-of-the-box thinking, my school opted to toss it to the elementary grades.
So there we were, deep into memorizing our multiplication tables and scratching out long division, and suddenly we were faced with "sets" and "subsets," negative numbers and algebra concepts. To say we were knocked off our feet is an understatement. We were gobsmacked with all manner of numerical reasoning to help us find solutions — but we hadn't yet learned all the basic rules of the questions!
This new curriculum worked for very few kids, and after a number of painful years, the practice was abandoned (for the next educational fad, no doubt), leaving a generation of people with an aborted mathematical education. As an example, I never did learn all my multiplication tables, but I took algebra in high school and managed a B. Now how does that happen?
As a result of the power struggle between warring factions of math educators, I am now an adult with no functional math skills. I cannot divide or work out decimals and can only figure out simple percentages because those are used in merchandise sales.
When my children entered school I become phobic about anything I saw as an educational innovation. Perhaps they were good ideas, but how were we to know? The two youngest attended a school that never taught kindergartners to print, they started straight of the bat with cursive handwriting (it was something to do with fine motor skills and spacing between letters). But the end result was sentences that looked like they were written by a 110-year-old with severe arthritis and young adults adrift when they entered the business world and were asked to print.
Whole word versus phonics? Inventive spelling? Story or thematic instruction? Timed tasks? Manipulatives? The list is endless and certainly carries some concepts that seemed to have proven merits. But it's tough to know the best path to take, particularly since our test subjects are our children.
I have to be cautious criticizing educational trends, however. One of my daughters is a certified Montessori teacher and passionate about the merits of "child-centered learning" and "freedom within limits."
And in fact one educator I spoke with sees many failed educational programs that he deems "Montessori-inspired" but poorly executed in the public school setting. Theory being, I imagine, that the philosophies can work if you set them up in the manner they were intended, with teachers trained to execute them and appropriate curricular materials.
I can't help but chuckle when I hear schools are changing to K-8, rather than K-5 linked to middle schools, like that is something new. In the "olden days" the trend was to break off the higher grades into middle schools so kids had a chance to learn in an environment akin to high school before they actually got there. And now some districts are going back to the inclusive K-8, deeming that a better way to learn for youngsters.
A better way to learn. That seems to be the root of all misguided educational trends. And the not-so misguided ones I guess. I'd hate to see education stagnate and fail to adapt to societal changes but I don't like the idea of practicing the concepts on our kids either.
Leslie Pugmire Hole is editor of the Wilsonville Spokesman and West Linn Tidings.
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