Current Trends in Math Education

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

After reading this lesson, you'll understand how the teaching of mathematics has changed over time and what methods are being used right now. You'll see how these methods are moving students away from rote memorization.


Back in the day, prior to 1958, when the National Defense Education Act was signed by President Eisenhower, rote memorization was used more often in the teaching of mathematics. Rote memorization is about memorizing facts. Picture young students sitting in rows and repeating the multiplication table back to the math teacher: 1 times 1 is 1, 1 times 2 is 2, 1 times 3 is 3, and so on. Back then, students learned to solve math problems by memorizing things. But, when Sputnik was launched into space by the Soviets in 1957, the United States saw a need to emphasize and improve the math curriculum being taught in schools so that the mathematical skills of American children would improve.


Because of this need to improve, a new way of teaching math came about. This is the so-called New Math. Instead of using rote memorization to teach math, math education now focused more on math concepts as a way to understand math. A math concept is the why behind math. Learning a math concept now empowers the student to solve different kinds of problems as the student can use the math concept and apply it to various problems. It teaches the student how to find answers without having to memorize numbers. With rote memorization, children had no need to understand why math worked the way it did; they just had to memorize that 2 + 2 = 4. With New Math, children were encouraged to think of numbers as objects so they could see why 2 + 2 equaled 4. They wouldn't need to memorize that 2 + 2 = 4, since they could figure it out on their own.

This change, though, didn't happen smoothly. Parents who grew up learning math with a different method now found it very difficult to help their children. The new concepts being taught were unfamiliar, and parents had no idea how to teach or help their children. Even some teachers didn't know how to teach these new concepts as they too were taught math differently. Picture the difficulty when, parents who had never heard of set theory, now had to help their children learn it.

Fast forward a few more years to 2009, and another change in math education happens. This is when Common Core entered the math education scene. The Common Core is about using a set of standard objectives to teach students so that students from all over will learn the same skills and concepts. This means that a student in California will learn the same thing as a student in New York.

But Common Core is voluntary, and not all states follow the standard objectives. And also, Common Core doesn't provide a curriculum, so states and teachers are free to teach the objectives using various methods. For example, a Common Core objective for third grade is to fluently multiply and divide up to 100. Because the common core doesn't provide a curriculum, teachers are free to teach, using whatever methods they choose to teach that objective. And these new methods are causing the same frustration as the change to New Math did in the past. Today's parents are finding it just as difficult to help and teach their kids as parents did a few decades ago because new methods are being taught now the same as they were before.

Let's take a look at some of these changes in more detail now.


Both Common Core and New Math focus more on concepts, on why math works the way it does. Instead of teaching students that 12 * 12 = 144, New Math and Common Core teach students methods they can use to figure out what 12 * 12 equals. There is no longer a need to memorize this. As the field of mathematics grows, new methods of working with math are also introduced. It is these new methods of working with numbers that is causing parents that were taught differently a lot of frustration.

Just imagine a parent that knows how to multiply using the standard multiplication algorithm like this:

Multiplying 12 and 12 using the standard multiplication algorithm
math trends

Now, picture that parent trying to teach their children how to multiply like this:

Multiplying 12 and 12 using lattice multiplication
math trends

You can just imagine the frustration the parent is feeling. Because the child doesn't know how his or her parent learned math, the child has no idea how to explain the math in words and concepts the parent knows. And the parent is lost, and has no idea how to teach his or her child math as the concepts the parent knows mean nothing to the child, and the new concepts are completely unfamiliar to the parent. The above example is called lattice multiplication and is being taught as part of Common Core.

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