Chances are, if you have a child in primary school, you might have felt some frustration if you have tried to help them with their Maths homework lately.  Let me guess; you told them how to set out the sum in columns, you told them how to carry and borrow and you were met with frowns and complaints of; “But that’s not how we do it at school …”    

It’s not you ..  

If you feel you are experiencing a generation gap, or that you have lost your ability to communicate effectively with your child, don’t despair.  The problem is not you.  It’s Maths.  Or more properly, as it is known today, “numeracy”.

You see, Maths has changed.  The numbers are still the same, but the techniques are wildly different.  It is so ‘revolutionary’ that in the United States, they actually call it ‘New Math’.  It involves such ideas as counting forward to work out subtraction sums, taking away to do division calculations, number lines, chunking (or partitioning) and arrays. Confused?  You’re not alone.

The debate

There are experts who are passionate supporters (this article from the BBC attempts to clarify the new techniques but I fear actually makes them seem quite complicated) and critics (the title alone of this piece is designed to ring alarm bells) of the new methods, but it all actually makes more sense than we might think.

Let’s look at the idea of counting forward to work out the answer to a subtraction sum.  Although it might seem a mathematical oxymoron, it actually just takes advantage of the fact that we tend to be better at counting forwards than backwards.  If we want to work out the answer to, say, 85-68, we would start at 68 and count to 70 (2), then to 80 (10) and then to 85 (5).  Then we add these numbers up to get 17.  As we get better we can add the numbers as we go.  Not only are we able to work out the answers to subtraction ‘sums’ but avoiding the need to ‘borrow’ makes mental calculations much less prone to careless errors.  It also helps conceptually if the question were phrased; “One string is 85cm long and another is 68cm.  How much longer is the longer piece?”

There is no doubt that even most teachers have to approach these techniques with an open mind.  With practice, though, children are able to actually understand more of the processes they use, rather than them simply being a mechanical process.  ‘Chunking’ is a good example.  To calculate 54 multiplied by 3, students are taught to understand that they are really working out what 54 groups of 3 is.  Broken down , this would be done as 50 x 3 = 150 and 4 x 3 = 12.  150 + 12 gives us the answer of 162.  Again, no carrying is necessary and the idea of counting from a ‘ten’ (150) makes the number work easy.

The bottom line

Not convinced?  The general principle is that the focus should be on understanding and application, rather than just rote-learning a series of steps.  It should also be noted that tests such as NAPLAN are based on the assumption that students understand these new techniques.  A question might be phrased; “If 138 x 6 is 828, what is 139 x 6?”  Rather than jumping to a long-multiplication sum, the student merely needs to add one more ‘lot’ of 6 onto 138.

If you have any questions about what your child should be doing, you can always check the official website of ACARA (the people who design the curriculum) here.  Also remember that at Mesh we are passionate about knowing which techniques work and why.  Feel free to arrange an appointment to sit down with us and ask any questions you might have.

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