about our children.
The following is an exert of a dissertation which appears on the TERC web site, entitled “Tidy Math Fan”. It was written in 2001 by Susan James, Grade 5 teacher, Winston-Salem, NC. I think the piece speaks for itself.
What is tidy math? Worksheets containing orderly rows of computation problems, all essentially the same problem, but with different numbers. Textbooks or teachers that cleanly demonstrate a method step by step and then ask students to do thirty problems using that same method. These are examples of tidy math.
Who are tidy math fans? Students who are neat and well-organized. Students who may not be too creative, but who pay attention and follow directions well. Students who are satisfied with knowing how and who are not bothered by not knowing why. Students who grow up, meet math teachers like myself at parties, and say “Oh, I’ve always liked math. I love how there’s always one right answer to a problem.” These are tidy math fans.
Tidy math fans do well in what we now call “traditional” math programs. But as some schools adopt new programs like Investigations, some of these students face a sudden drop in status, from one of the best math students in the class to an average, sometimes struggling student. Their self-esteem about their math ability plummets. It’s no wonder that some of their parents (who themselves grew up with tidy math) put up a fuss about the new program and teaching style that is causing their children’s loss of confidence.
Certainly not all students who enjoy tidy math are less successful with Investigations or similar programs. Some of them rise to the challenge and find that they are able to generate their own strategies instead of just following the teacher’s strategy, and that they actually feel better about what they are doing now that they understand why it works. But there are still some tidy math fans who do not adapt well. The rules for success and the very definition of what it means to do math have changed on them. Math is much harder now.