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What is New Math?

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New Math was a dramatic but temporary change in the way mathematics was taught in American grade schools, and to a lesser extent in European countries and elsewhere, during the 1950s–1970s. Curriculum topics and teaching practices were changed in the U.S. shortly after the Sputnik crisis1.

New Math Curricula

New Math curricula were diverse, but they all shared the belief that children would only retain arithmetic algorithms if they were taught for comprehension, not just memorized and practiced. This is because elementary school arithmetic beyond single digits is only meaningful if students understand place value.

New Math taught arithmetic in bases other than ten, even though some critics derided this approach, because it forced students to think about place value rather than mindlessly follow algorithms. For example, in base seven, the “hundreds” digit has a place value of 49, which students had to understand in order to perform arithmetic in that base.

In Classrooms

New Math curricula all focused on students discovering mathematical concepts for themselves. Students worked together in groups to develop their own theories about math problems in the textbooks. Teacher materials described classrooms as being full of lively discussion and debate.

Controversy and Opposition to New Math

It was an attempt to reform mathematics teaching by focusing on abstract concepts and problem-solving skills. New Math curricula introduced students to topics such as set theory, modular arithmetic, algebraic inequalities, bases other than 10, matrices, symbolic logic, Boolean algebra, and abstract algebra.

New Math was controversial from the start. Critics argued that it was too abstract and difficult for students, and that it did not focus enough on basic skills such as arithmetic and computation. They also criticized the use of discovery learning in New Math classrooms, arguing that it led to chaos and confusion.2

  1. New Math – Wikipedia ↩︎
  2. What is Constructivist Learning – Delve Institute ↩︎

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