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  • Writer's pictureAren Cohen

Math Panic? Let's Get Back to Basics

Math Panic

It seems inevitable that a math panic is appearing now, as we unwind from the pandemic. In two back-to-back articles in the New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang wrote to remind readers that math education is now part of the culture wars, and asked “What do we really know about teaching kids math?” A New York Times’ article emphasized the drops in fourth and eighth grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

Khan Academy, the online education juggernaut, is ready to step into the void and provide “mastery learning” for algebra, pre-algebra and geometry.

However, math wars, internet solutions and worrying about students being prepared for statistics versus calculus by their last years of high school, are missing the point entirely. Our math crisis did not manifest in the last three years. It’s neither the result of, or solved by, a calculator. It starts earlier in children’s lives now, and it has deeper roots than most people realize.

Credit Cards and Digital Clocks

In the old days, if I went to buy stickers for my sticker collection, I paid with dollar bills and coins. My swatch watch was analog: a round face with two hands marking minutes and hours in a twelve hour cycle. Modern technology— Apple Pay and digital watches— have made paying with cash and keeping time in an analog system almost irrelevant. As a society, we ignore that these simple tools have helped support early mathematical concepts in ways we barely notice. Ask a second grader today: How many cents are in a quarter? How many quarters are in a dollar? Ask them: How many minutes are in an hour? You may be surprised by what you hear.

When children don’t see the hands of a clock moving to show time passing, how do they distinguish 60 vs. 100 minutes in an hour? If all you ever do is swipe a card, how are kids reminded that there are four quarters in a dollar, and that each one is worth 25 out of 100 cents?

They aren’t.

When students are seven or eight or nine… these tangible, tactile representations teach basic numeracy. The tools of time and money help teach math. Clock faces help prepare us to think about pie charts and angle measurements. Making change offers early exposure to decimals and percentages. Practicing numbers and early counting isn’t substantial enough to really prepare children for the exciting but complex world of mathematics.

Math as Patterns

The first time I was going to help a second grader with math, I called my Judi. She told me to get a set of dice and a deck of cards. I was confused. I was tutoring a little kid, not preparing to be a magician or casino worker. What was this all about?

Cards and dice aren’t just for magic tricks and gambling. They’re surprisingly useful tools for exploring mathematical patterns. For kiddos, these interesting objects grown ups play with can be used to create simple games to explore simple addition, subtraction and multiplication.

Repeated practice with numbers help kids gain confidence and build their memory for the basic building blocks that are essential as they move on to increasingly complex mathematical concepts. These simple tools and games are easily played at home— and parents don’t need to be math professors.

Something as simple as asking kids to count up by 2s, 3s and 5s can help spark children’s curiosity while highlighting some basic patterns that occur within mathematics.

Back to Basics

Coming out of the pandemic, so much is in flux. For parents who peeked at teaching remotely or in the classroom, what they saw proved eye-opening. Just as parents are (re)learning how important phonics are for teaching basic literacy, we must also re-examine how we teach elementary math. We can’t start by looking just at algebra and trigonometry.

Before “math wars” and new technological fixes, perhaps we are all well served to think about our youngest learners, and to capitalize on what already exists. There is a lot to be said for old fashioned methodologies. We’ll improve our children’s mathematical futures by getting back to the basics.

Some resources for early elementary parents:

Sal Khan demonstrates "Skip Counting" here.

Skip Counting PRO TIPS:

1. Many videos on YouTube set skip counting to music. That's great, but when kids actively practice the process of adding the same number repeatedly it builds conceptual understanding. Music helps memorization.

2. Kids don't need Sal level explanations... It's more fun watching them have their own Aha moments.

3. Start with 10's and 2's for the littlest ones.... then 5's. Build from there.

Play "Circles and Stars"

This YouTube explainer offers a game using dice as a way to prepare students for multiplication too. The "concept" shifts here from an adding strategy to teaching multiplication as groups of groups.


Jay Caspian Kang in the New Yorker: How Math Became an Object of the Culture Wars and What Do We Really Know About Teaching Kids Math?

S. Mervosh and A. Wu, "Math Scores Fell in Nearly Every State, and Reading Dipped on National Exam" NYTIMES Oct. 24, 2022.

Photos by Andrey Metelev, Karolina Grabowska, Black ice, Jeff Weese, milos tomasevic and Aditya Chinchure via Pexels or Unsplash

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