The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer. (They did not understand that each hash mark represented two degrees rather than one, leading many students to mistake 46 degrees for 43 degrees.) On the same multiple-choice test, three-quarters of fourth graders could not translate a simple word problem about a girl who sold 15 cups of lemonade on Saturday and twice as many on Sunday into the expression “15 + (2×15).” Even in Massachusetts, one of the country’s highest-performing states, math students are more than two years behind their counterparts in Shanghai.
Adulthood does not alleviate our quantitative deficiency. A 2012 study comparing 16-to-65-year-olds in 20 countries found that Americans rank in the bottom five in numeracy. On a scale of 1 to 5, 29 percent of them scored at Level 1 or below, meaning they could do basic arithmetic but not computations requiring two or more steps. One study that examined medical prescriptions gone awry found that 17 percent of errors were caused by math mistakes on the part of doctors or pharmacists. A survey found that three-quarters of doctors inaccurately estimated the rates of death and major complications associated with common medical procedures, even in their own specialty areas.
One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.
Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.
But our innumeracy isn’t inevitable. In the 1970s and the 1980s, cognitive scientists studied a population known as the unschooled, people with little or no formal education. Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the ‘80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.
The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.
The Australian approach was to teach a systematic method for solving problems, and then expect the students to drill, and drill, and drill some more, until they figured out the system and applied it. Don't know the Order of Operations? DRILL IN IT UNTIL YOUR EYES BLEED!!!
Today, I hold two degrees in mathematics from two of the best universities in the world.
Today my job requires the ability to think through complex problems, think outside the box, and figure out how to make broken things work again with the least amount of pain and resistance possible. It's not easy, but it is a lot of fun.
In Asia, her approach is normal.
It is also a big part of the reason why I am still pretty darn good at quantitative problem solving. (Certain mildly embarrassing slip-ups aside.) Hell, I work in a job that requires that I know how to pick apart complex technical problems and then put together solutions. I didn't get that way by being some kind of intuitive wunderkind- I'm not. I got there through dint of sheer hard work.
Hell, even the article seems to admit as much, albeit in a very half-arsed manner, by pointing out that street urchins in Third World countries who constantly have to do mental arithmetic are really, really good at it, but fall apart the moment someone tries to teach them a problem-solving approach similar to the way Americans are taught. The reason is simple: those kids have to do the same thing, over and over and over again, and so get to be really good at the processes of mental arithmetic. They do the work.