Classical Mathematics

Math is an essential element of any well-rounded education and is, therefore, a critical subject in classical, Christian education. Math is like a language, and languages train our brains in thinking skills. Like Latin, math is a logical, precise language and subsequently builds our capacity for higher-level thinking skills.

There’s a lot of talk today about Common Core math, and most of it can be summed up with the sentiment that it is terrible! I’m not a supporter of Common Core, but I don’t necessarily have a problem with this method’s math grade-level goals. For a curriculum to be “Common Core aligned,” it must meet the grade-level goals which Common Core has set up. See the grade-level goals here.  

Let’s take a look at the US’s approach to teaching mathematics in elementary school. In 2015, the US scored 31 out of 36 countries in math, reading, and science. First and foremost, we can conclude that what we’re doing is not working. Our approach to mathematics is memory and formula driven. Primarily, we take concrete mathematical concepts and teach them in a purely abstract manner. For example, the picture on the left shows that a numerical representation of six groups of three is eighteen. The picture doesn’t show the concrete representation of 6X3=18. Students across the country are merely memorizing their “math facts” and then performing miserably on standardized testing and math in general, because there is no concrete foundation behind the memorized facts. In our local public high schools, they continue to lower their expectations of students’ math capabilities. They are splitting Algebra into Algebra A and B, taking two years to get students through one year of Algebra successfully. Instead of teaching students to think mathematically when teaching concrete math in the early years of education, our system teaches only abstract realities. When students hit abstract math later in their education, they hit a cognitive wall. It is not the Common Core goals that are amiss; it’s the methods that many curriculums employ in teaching math that is the problem. 

Singapore has been at the top of the OECD list for decades. They have a proven record of teaching math well, which in turn allows their students to test well globally. Singapore Math, the curriculum developed for the schools in Singapore, uses a specific pedagogy that moves from the concrete to modeling to an abstract representation. Instead of having students memorize their math facts like 6X3=18, they would first learn and see that six groups of three is eighteen. This way, students have a concrete understanding of the numerical representation. (To fully appreciate the beauty of Singapore math, you need to understand their use of bar models. Please watch the video here to see how Singapore Math builds a solid foundation of mathematical understanding in students.)

When teaching any subject, it is essential to remember that it is not just learning of the facts that are important, but how the learning develops the brain. When we take the concrete reality out of the learning process, we are robbing our students of the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills that will be the foundation of their success in higher-level math.

by Gina Bonecutter, Head of School