If you have a child in school today, then Pluto was still a planet when you were in school. What happened? Pluto hasn’t changed, but our knowledge of Pluto has. I’m sure you have noticed that much of what you learned, or the way you learned it, is not what or how your child is taught today. One classic example is subtraction in mathematics. Once upon a time we used to “borrow” from a neighbor next door if we didn’t have enough to subtract. If you were solving 62-38, you would go to the 6 and “borrow” 10 ones. Did you ever give them back? No. We now realize that the vocabulary we use to teach number concepts to children is essential for them to truly understand what is happening. Now we teach children from kindergarten on to “decompose” numbers, or to break them apart. Americans have been researching what is working in other countries with excellent math programs, and bringing back ideas from their successful instruction to improve our curriculum. Countries like China and Singapore have been teaching children how to fluently decompose numbers for decades. In the problem 62-38 we can decompose 62 into 50 and 12, and then subtract 30 and 8 from it. Our answer is 24.
We are leaving an era of simply teaching students to follow a series of steps that they memorize, to one where we teach children to think and make rational decisions about how to approach problems. We can’t view mathematics as a subject of isolated rules that just seem to magically work. This perspective isn’t preparing our youth to be thinkers. It is increasingly important for our schools to produce students who are rational problem solvers and critical thinkers and who see the interconnectedness of all concepts within mathematics. Many of the careers our students will have as adults don’t even exist yet. We can no longer merely teach skills, because those skills may be irrelevant by the time a student graduates from high school. Problem solving and critical thinking will always be essential.