Multiplication in Columbia
The Columbia Tribune is fun to read when the math wars flare up. Sometimes, the intensity of the debate seems to be out of proportion to what’s at stake. Take a look at this exchange from a recent school board meeting:
Math teacher Teresa Barry challenged the notion that all students should be learning only one method of calculation, and to prove her point, she asked board members to multiply 12 by 16. When member Tom Rose said he got the solution by first multiplying 16 by 10 in his head, Barry was quick to mockingly chastise him for not using the traditional algorithm.
Sorry to bring out the snarkiness for which this blog is known, but if by “traditional” they mean long multiplication, then that is the traditional algorithm. (You might write it out by first multiplying 16 by 2, but the order doesn’t matter.) At any rate, even if a board member used some obscure ancient Chinese algorithm, is that really worth calling a meeting about?
I’ve concluded that the math wars are less about specific algorithms — the competing methods are, in some cases, algorithmically equivalent — than about philosophies of education. Even if all parents agreed on how to write out a multiplication problem, there would still be passionate debates about explicit instruction vs. exploration, how much practice kids need, what topics should be taught at each grade level, etc.
It just goes to show that one standard form of education can’t satisfy everyone. Why not offer a few different math courses, based on different approaches, and let parents choose which ones they want for their kids? That system works well enough for other subjects. Some students study Spanish, others study French, and nobody argues at board meetings about which language is better.