I teach students to solve math problems on the left side of the page and do calculations on the right. Space is left between problems so that we can clearly see the pairing of the problem and the work that went with it. We don’t try to squeeze it all into some arbitrary snippet of space.
Pencils are used, not pens, so that mistakes can be erased and corrected. Students learn to check their work and to catch their own errors before I do. I don’t allow a calculator until Algebra II because basic arithmetic skills should be practiced and reinforced. (If the textbook is good, with reasonable problems that focus on skills and not on excessively complicated problems, then calculators are largely unnecessary and can actually be counterproductive.)
The emphasis is on “showing work” in a tidy and clear manner so that students, parents and I can see how the answer was derived and where something might have gone awry. Like this:
Not only do students not know sufficient mathematics, but their work tends to be sloppy and riddled with errors. They aren’t taught to write neatly, check their work or correct as they go. Their attitude toward accuracy is casual; toward math in general, it's negative and stressed. Motivating them to replace bad habits with good ones is a challenge that takes time, positivity, creativity and much intensive labor.
I don’t blame the children. I’ve heard administrators, board directors and teachers do that by saying things like “They’re just not motivated.” Or “They don’t care about math.” Or even “This is a low group.” I see a lack of motivation, yes, but I don’t blame students for it. They learn what they’re taught. If what they’re taught is boring, incomprehensible, time-wasting, hard on their self-esteem, confusing, or stupid – they won’t be motivated. Sadly, although the situation isn’t their fault, it is their problem. For most of them, this early learning will haunt their lives forever. It’s our problem, too. Graduates who have poor habits and insufficient academics are not capable of picking up the reins of the country.
I’ve been able to correct some or all of the bad process in a handful of students, but I am only one tutor and there are about 28,000 students in this district. Most will go back to their regular classes, where good process is not allowed and is even criticized, and where bad process is reinforced.
Here’s what I’ve witnessed in students going through (or graduates of) reform-math programs.
- They lack nearly all critical arithmetic skills. Some can’t tell time or say how many days are in each month. They don’t know their multiplication tables, long division, the number line, how to subtract negatives, how to work with fractions, how to convert between decimals, fractions and percentages, how to isolate a variable, how to solve an equation, how to read a problem, or how to show or check their work. Many count on their fingers.
- They're all pretty much math-illiterate and math-phobic. They don’t just lack skills; they also have zero confidence. One high school graduate panicked when I asked her to solve 6x8. Some cried over their math homework. They all tend to think the problem in math is them, and this embarrasses them. Some have actually apologized for taking up their teachers’ time.
- Asked to do some math problems, these students will often just plunk down an answer with no attendant calculations.
- If they do calculations, the work tends to be indecipherable – scribbled along the side, in a corner, or wandering around the page, in tiny print, too small for anyone – including the student – to read.
- Some students will automatically erase their work so no one can see it, or do it on a different sheet that is to be tossed out.
- Equations, if there are any, are often written horizontally (not vertically), with many “ = “ signs, sometimes with arcs, lines or arrows drawn to connect math terms.
- Many pictures and boxes are drawn because, in reform math, one correct and efficient method isn’t enough and can actually lose the student points.
- Because calculations often aren’t shown or aren’t done in a structured, vertical format, important pieces of an equation are neglected or forgotten, such as an all-important negative sign or a stray multiplier.
- Incorrect answers tend to remain on the page alongside correct ones. Picking out the work and the answer is difficult.
- Homework and worksheets often come from the teacher with no room for calculations because calculator use is expected. Extra worksheets often aren’t even to be graded. They're handed out for students to do if they want, but no one plans to review them.
- Students tend to reach for their calculator for the simplest of calculations, but the calculators don't consistently bring them correct answers. Fantastically wrong answers aren't questioned; students seem to have no idea of what a reasonable answer would be.
- Students are expected to “discover” important concepts – such as the slope of a graph, the point-slope formula or the Pythagorean Theorem – at home with their homework. “I can’t look for something if I don’t know what it is,” a student said to me, tearfully.
- Students aren't taught to work vertically; show their work; check their work; or to value efficiency, logic, correctness, neatness or legibility. They're not taught to carefully assess the problem for what it's asking, or to see if their solution actually answers that question.
- They're not taught to enjoy math, nor to enjoy the process of determining a correct answer. Instead, they learn to fret over math, to fudge answers, estimate, depend on the calculator, lean on “partners,” give up, get it over with, and accept whatever the “group” says is right, before blessedly escaping out the door.
- Students are taught that “close enough” is “good enough.” One student said her teacher told the class that angles within five degrees of the correct angle were close enough. (But in the “real world,” a mistake of five degrees can send you in a wrong direction or even kill you.)
- Last, but certainly not least, students are taught that their parents cannot help them. “Don’t teach your children traditional methods,” parents are told in open houses or on the first day of class. “It will only confuse them.” Imagine that – a failed education program actively interferes with parents helping their children. And then, that same program turns around and blames parents for not being involved enough.