Blog Post: What's Right with Math Today

Joe Koelsch is the Dean of Instruction at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. Before that, he taught math for 6 years.

You’ve probably seen the video. A split screen with two people solving the same multiplication problem. On the left-hand side of the screen a teacher uses “common core” math to solve the problem. She breaks down numbers, draws boxes and makes what seems like a simple problem infinitely more complex. All told, it takes about 3 minutes. On the opposite screen, a person uses “old school math” to solve the same problem in about 24 seconds, and then goes on to make a cup of coffee. The headline is, “This is what’s wrong with math today.”

The message is simple, and I hear it from both parents and teachers—even some math teachers—every day: why is math so much harder now than it was when I went to school? In the next few paragraphs I hope to answer that question using the example from the video… so if you haven’t watched it yet, take a few minutes now.

Let’s start by talking a little bit about the multiplication algorithm—the process being used on the right side of the split screen and how most of us learned to multiply. What most of us understand about this method can be summed up in the following way:

1.     Multiply both numbers in the top number by the first digit in the bottom number.

2.     Add a 0.

3.     Multiply both numbers in the top number by the second digit in the bottom number.

4.     Add the two answers together to find your solution.

These simple steps can be used to answer any 2-digit by 2-digit multiplication problem. It’s easy to teach, to learn and to replicate. Unfortunately, most of these benefits rely on the same faulty foundation: that doing math is about repeating a process to quickly find an answer.

It is this thinking that has created generations of uninspired and bored math students and teachers, and has left the United States ranked 38th out of 71 countries assessed in a recent international math assessment (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/).