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A History of the New Math (and lessons for CS Ed)

Posted By Fred Martin, Thursday, November 17, 2016
Spines of New Math paperbacks from the 1960s (courtesy wikimedia.org)

Spines of New Math paperbacks from the 1960s (courtesy wikimedia.org)

Many of us remember the New Math from personal experience. I do from elementary school in the 1970s in West Hurley, NY.

I loved it. I learned that the decimal system is arbitrary and numbers could be expressed in any base. That was fascinating.

Of course, I was the kid who learned his times tables for fun.

The New Math emphasized understanding the rule-systems that underlie numbers. In elementary school, it constructed the very concept of number with set theory rather than by rote counting.

There wasn’t a focus on students being able to do arithmetic computations. This upset people, and by the 1970s, the New Math was under attack.

The “back to basics” movement re-established an emphasis on computations in the 1980s.

As described by Christopher J. Phillips in his book The New Math: A Political History (The University of Chicago Press, 2015), it’s not a coincidence that this is the same decade in which the country elected Ronald Reagan as president.

Phillips cogently makes the case that the rise and fall of the New Math movement traces our cultural mores and larger political beliefs about who should be making decisions in our society.

Going back two thousand years, Phillips shows how the argument about how mathematics should be taught has been a proxy for a conversation about how people should be taught to think.

For the developers of the New Math, their approach would help American citizens be critical and creative thinkers—what was required to counter the Cold War threat of a dominant Soviet Union.

Indeed, the federal funding that was leveraged in the 1950s to build the New Math movement was appropriated as literally a matter of national defense. This was followed by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s, which continued the federal government’s role in fostering national education curricula.

The consensus that the federal government should be deciding what’s taught in our nation’s schools frayed with the cultural changes in the 1960s and collapsed with the horrors of Vietnam in the 1970s.

As we work towards making computer science a first-class citizen in the pantheon of school teaching and learning, what lessons can we draw from the rise and fall of the New Math?

Computer science is a liberal art—not just a vocational skill. It’s true that becoming accomplished as a software developer is a path to a good career, including good pay. And it’s true that there is a social justice dimension to broadening participation in computing—everyone should discover whether they love computing and then have access to these career paths.

But the reason to institutionalize computer science in K-12 is deeper than that. It’s because computing is beautiful and powerful—like all forms of knowing and doing.

We must go beyond the zero-sum game. One of our big challenges is creating time for teaching and learning computing. We don’t want to create winners (computer science) and losers (other areas of study).

It seems clear that infusion approaches—integrating computing into other subjects—will be an important part of the future.

It’s a team effort. One of the big take-aways from Phillips’ book was the reach of the School Mathematics Study Group—the organization that was created to develop and support the New Math. Curriculum writers from all over the country were involved in creating the reference texts; these individuals then served in leadership roles in the adoptions in their home states.

Most importantly, now we live in a time where everyone’s involved in curriculum decisions, particularly parents.

We need everyone together to make this happen.

P.S. I highly recommend Christopher Phillips’ book. His writing is clean and compelling, and the story is engaging and compact. He also published an essay-length version of his thesis in the New York Times on December 3, 2015.

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