A teacher gives the following math story problem. A wealthy man dies and leaves $10,000,000 (ten million dollars) in his will: one-fifth is to go to his wife, one-fifth is to go to his son, one-sixth to his butler, and the rest to the Baptist church. Now, what does each family member get?” After a very long period of classroom silence, one little boy raised his hand and with sincerity in his voice, answered, “A lawyer!”

Well, math is going to be going to court. On one side will be the Ontario government and on the other side will be the teacher’s union. It all has to do with the way basic math is to be taught in the public school. Here is the back story on the coming legal challenge:

In Ontario the old basic math was taught on the basis of “how” – How do you count? How do you add? How do you subtract? How do you multiply? How do you divide? How do you do fractions? How do you find x? (Fifty years later, I’m still looking for it, x.) And the method used in the classroom was memorization through repetition via constant drilling. Written tests were then administered by the teacher to see if the student had mastered the math skills given.

Then came the new basic math, not taught on the basis of “how” but “why” – Why do we count? Why do we add? Why do we subtract? Why do we multiply? Why do we divide? Why do we do fractions? Out went the proven old – memorizing, repetition, drilling. And in came the experimental new, things like – natural inquisitiveness, mathematical play and concept visualization. Teachers were now to test progress through the tools of observation, dialogue and self-reflection, not just tests. Especially in the early grades, students were to spend their time discovering basic math, not having it drilled into them. And so basic math skills once developed by daily pencil-and-paper exercises were being replaced by basic math skills to be developed through more involved conceptual thinking.

So here’s an example showing the difference between the old basic math and the new: what is 37-16?

Old Math 37-16=21

New Math

37-16

16 + 4 = 20

20 + 10 = 30

30 + 7 = 37

4+10+7=21

What has been the result of all of this? In the old basic math days, almost all elementary students in most of Ontario’s schools passed the province’s standardized mathematical test. In the new basic math days, that number has steadily declined and is now for the first time under 50% in some Ontario schools. Finally the Ford government said enough is enough. Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced a new “back-to-basics” math curriculum. And all public school teachers (not just those teaching math) would be required to take a mathematics test. And if they fail, they will not be allowed to teach As the government says, “How can we expect out students to do the math if our teachers can’t?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the new basic math promoters aren’t sincere. (I understand their complicated formulas are designed to force students to think deeper about the basic procedures they are learning.) What I am saying is they are sincerely wrong. Yes, there are some things you learn in order to think more deeply about them (theology, philosophy, etc.), but basic math is not one of them. You learn basic math – not to think about it, but to not to have to think about it. To use it as a tool, not an end in itself. No one believes a carpenter is made better able to build a house by contemplating the complex process by which his tools are made. And no one believes you can become a better writer by learning more about how the alphabet system was developed.

It’s all like the story of the centipede who was walking along and met a toad. The toad remarked to the centipede, “Isn’t it wonderful. You have one hundred feet and yet you know how to use each one,” at which point the centipede began to think about which foot to move next and soon was unable to move at all. What we should be doing is making basic math (counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, fractions) so habitual, that students do not have to think about it any more than one has to think about tying their shoelaces. Then after that, more advanced, conceptual math can be brought into the picture.

The bottom line? There’s a reason why Johnny can’t add, but Ella, Jason, Bentley, Declan, Fraser, Luke, Ryker, Ben, Evangeline, Ethan, Charlotte, Wesley and Ava can. It’s because they are all learning math the old-fashioned way, the same way their parents and grandparents did: 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 1 = 2, 1+1 = 2 …