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New ways of teaching math focus on concepts, not just memorization

By Mary Richards | Posted - Jan 31st, 2013 @ 2:41pm



SALT LAKE CITY — No doubt you have tried to help your child with their math homework this past year, but it looks different than the way you used to do it.

The new Utah Core standards have changed math instruction to include less memorizing and more concepts.

Remember the emphasis on flash cards, the multiplication tables, speed drills and even the word "borrowing" from your youth? Forget all that; for the most part, it's being replaced.

"The questions parents have about math instruction changing, they are absolutely right, it is changing," said David Smith, the elementary mathematics specialist at the Utah State Office of Education.

He said over the years, children have been given tips and tricks to get to the answer.

"That's not what you are trying to do. You are trying to solve a problem, and the answer is a part of that," he said.

The Utah Core standards now focus much more on the reasoning, the process, and the different ways to solve a problem. After they understand those concepts, memorization will have its place. Students will be required to be fluent in math facts and algorithms, for example, but they should understand the reason behind them.

Dave Kaplan, owner of Mathnasium in Sugarhouse, said they are focused on the purpose behind the Utah Core math standards as they tutor children who need help.

"We want to differentiate between memorizing formulas and algorithms, versus what multiplication really is. For example, if some child has memorized six times six but they can't remember what six times seven is, we want them to understand it's six times six, plus six times one," he explained.

Mila Gleason, owner of Mathnasium in Cottonwood Heights, said there's a big focus on introducing algebra earlier, like in first and second grade.

"Introduce everything a little at a time so it's not all scary in 6th grade," she said.

"If you say, four plus eight equals what? Most kids will know 12. But if you say, four plus what number equals 12? That implies algebraic and critical thinking," added Kaplan.

However, math can get difficult when different styles are being taught by different teachers. Some use boxes and arrays for multiplication and division. Others no longer say "borrowing" or "carry the one," for example, when subtracting and adding. This is why Smith encouraged teachers to communicate with parents about these new ways.


"We want to differentiate between memorizing formulas and algorithms, versus what multiplication really is."

"You have to let parents know what you are doing that is different, otherwise they will not support you or feel good about what you are doing," he said.

Parents must ask questions, too, Smith said.

"Ask, 'What is your teacher asking you to do? Can you explain it to me?' If they can't, send a note to the teacher saying, 'My child couldn't explain this,' " Smith said.

If your child is still struggling, Gleason and Kaplan said places like their tutoring centers can help.

"Your children can learn," Gleason said. "If you can't do it, find someone who can."

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