Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Math Spiraling: down a black hole to nowhere?

CJ Westerberg, July 26, 2011 10:30 AM


Editor's Note:  Lynne Diligent is an American expat teacher who has worked in International Schools in America, and American School in the Middle East.  She is presently a tutor.  Please check out Part 1 - Math Tutors to the Rescue, and other related links below.  - C.J. W.

Why So Many Elementary Students Aren't Mastering Basic Math Facts

Part 2 of 2

" . . . more time needs to be spent on mastery of basic life skills
 in the early elementary grades."

by Lynne Diligent

One of the major problems with the "spiral" math curriculum is that in every grade, limited
and  precious classroom math time is being wasted  on unnecessary math concepts, given
the age of the students.  Those who have put the spiral curriculum together have moved math education from practical, daily skills to incorporating many advanced and unnecessary skills
(for the age of the students).  Many of these topics could be saved for higher grades (6-8)
and students would arrive better prepared, and intellectually ready.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for making-change-for-customers.jpgSome important topics, which are covered briefly in the curriculum, but to which little or no time is devoted to practice
or mastery of these important life skills:
  • "making change" for customers,
  • knowing addition and multiplication tables by heart,
  • knowing how to do the simplest operations without a calculator,
  •  being able to recognize a wrong answer when a wrong button has been pushed on a calculator,
  • developing estimation skills, becoming competent in measurement and fractions (useful to cooks for halving or doubling recipes on a daily basis).

Consider:  Are we not cooking anymore in American society? 
Are we not hanging picturemeasuring-in-cooking.jpg frames? 
Are we not doing any home repairs or improvements ourselves?   Is there never a need to count back change?  
Does no one sew or do woodworking for pleasure anymore?

There is also a great disconnect in many classrooms between
the material students are working on, and on knowing the reason for learning it.  Instead of letting students feel that
they are learning skills which can be useful to them NOW, so much time is wasted on learning concepts where the only use is for passing a test which seems useless to the child. 

Younger measuring-for-home-carpentry-projects.jpgelementary children are mostly concrete learners, and they love and appreciate fun concrete tasks to work on.

Below are five examples of the types of things I feel should be eliminated from the Grade 2 curriculum (for seven-year-old students).

Are the Chinese or Indian students spending time on these things at age 7?  I doubt it.
(Editor's Note: See links below to related posts about Math education in Singapore, China,
and Japan).

In my opinion, more time needs to be spent on mastery of basic life skills in the early elementary grades.

One last point about the spiral curriculum.  Math educator Brian Rude feels that the spiral curriculum should not be thrown out entirely, but that the problems are caused from barely touching on subjects each time, instead of cutting a bit deeper, so that information is retained.  He points out, however, that if cuts are too deep, that there is a danger of never having time to return to that subject, and students will also forget.  He feels a balance between the two extremes is best.

Immediately below are the five examples that should be eliminated from Grade 2.  They include Quadrilaterals, Shapes, Congruent Shapes, Slides, Flips, and Turns,  


You can find Lynne Diligent at her blog, Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor, where this post first appeared (with minor edits and additional links provided).  We recommend visiting this link to read the lively and passionate comments in response to the post.  Be sure to also check out Part 1 of this post:  Math Tutors to the Rescue?

Related posts The Daily Riff:

Why Other Countries Do Better in Math - Should Parents Race to the Tutor?

The Chinese Curse:  Is America next?

Education Arms Race:  Bob Compton - Two Million Minutes vs. Yong Zhao

Math teacher, Bill Jackson, shares his recent Travel Journal To Singapore -
Five part series

For more on Jackson's Travel Journal to Japan:
Day 1 & 2: Link - "What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan"
Day 3 & 4: Link Here - "A More Global Perspective On Teacher Assessment and Development"
Day 5:  Link Here - Developing Creative Talents, Not Just Academic Skills
Day 6: Link Here - "Less Is More"
Day 7 & 8 - Part 1: Link Here - "Teaching For Students. Sounds Obvious. Not."
Day 7 & 8 - Part 2: Link Here - "Teachers Walking The Talk"

part 1 - Singapore Math Demystified! - Five Part Series

Part 2:  Can Solving Problems Unravel Our Fear Of Math?
               The Singapore Math Program philosophy - Problem-based, concrete-pictorial-   abstract approach

Part 3:  Singapore Math:  Is this the most Visual Math?  The Signature Bar Modeling Method

Part 4:     How To Bring Singapore Math to Your School

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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