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Debating New Versus Traditional Math in Israel

Posted by bermudahomeschooler on January 30, 2006

Haaretz – Israel News – Article

Last update – 20:24 26/02/2003
You do the math!
By Aviva Lori

Below are snippets from an Israel paper online describing the decrease in math scores in Israel due to new math that focuses on manipulatives such as cuisnaire rods to the detriment of children knowing their math facts. Instead, the new math has focused on having students feel good about math as opposed to being able to calculate.

“When I came to Ma’alot,” says Aharoni, “the teachers explained to me that there are two equivalent approaches to teaching math that compete with one another: the structural approach and the environmental approach. It took me a whole year to realize that it’s all a fraud. There is no `environmental math’ – there is normal math and there is delusional math, which is unique to Israel. You have to have a distorted mind to invent something like that.”

Distorted mind or not, the achievement level of Israeli children in math is low….

Children in the first and second grades know to say that 3 + 5 is the same as 5 + 3, but they don’t know how much 5 + 3 is. A number of parents, teachers, high-tech professionals and math professors are sick of this situation. …

The method used in the books is called the investigational or structural method, at the center of which is use of the celebrated Cuisenaire rods. “One, Two … Three” was supposed to create a revolution in thinking. Each rod has a different color and size. Two rods placed side by side are not two. Instead, they represent a particular number, depending on the color and length of the rod. The child reaches the result not using the intuitive method of counting items, as he is used to doing in his natural environment, but rather by means of trial and error. He puts the rods down lengthwise, one after the other, and looks for a pattern that fits them. Their combined length, if it fits exactly into the pattern, is the result.

Those who do not understand will find themselves in the distinguished company of numerous parents, teachers, math professors and, of course, the pupils themselves. The idea is to teach first-grade children to investigate the “pure number.” The authors of the book explain in the teacher’s guide that the right way to teach math in the lower grades is to disconnect the students from their natural environment and from reality, and to teach them in a pure, clean environment that has nothing to do with prior knowledge. …

“The idea of the rods doesn’t make sense,” says physicist Dr. Mira Ofran of the Science Teaching Center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “What the child in the first grade learns is that green + yellow = purple. But he doesn’t really know how much it is. That is a terrible thing – basing math on something that is not on math. It is not difficult to see that this entire method is groundless from beginning to end….

Amir was not satisfied with the level of his students. He felt that the problem was the result of a postmodernist approach to life that undermines education.

“They said that you have to take the students’ happiness into account, to understand them, not to pressure them, not to ask, not to demand and not to harass them. No more learning by heart and no more homework. Even so, the standard is not particularly high. ..

Prof. Ehud de Shalit of Hebrew University’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics says that it is a huge mistake to concentrate on a single educational approach: “I like to illustrate this by using the image of a pendulum. Once everything was boring and children learned like robots. Then along came the education experts and they said, `That’s horrible. We have to let children discover the beauty of the world and let them be creative.’ Then the pendulum moved all the way to the other side, and now they are so creative that they don’t know how to add and subtract….

Prof. David Nevo became chief scientist of the Ministry of Education a year ago and does not view himself as having any commitment to the old system.

“In recent years, Israel went a little too far to please math teachers,” maintains Nevo. “They say the children have to learn by means of investigation and discovery, so that they remain interested and happy. And I say that you have to know the basics, too. The mathematicians say that there is no need to rediscover the multiplication tables each time anew, just to learn them, that there are laws and rules and they have to be learned by heart, too. In my view, the explanation for the failure is that with all the involvement in the method, the message was lost. Now there is a clear message coming from the system – that children must be required to have achievements.”

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