Author Of New Book Says Traditional Math Instruction Loses Too Many Kids

November 02, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- How many dreams have been dashed by the frustration of learning math? How many kids have been made to feel dumb because math, at some point, just stopped making sense?

Art Baroody, the author of a new book for guiding mathematics learning, fervently believes that it doesn't have to be that way, and notes that our high-tech society can't afford it.

"One of the most important points that comes out of current research is that everyone is capable of significant mathematical power," says Baroody, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois. "People typically are capable of understanding much more mathematics and solving much more difficult mathematical problems than they realize."

Research also shows that "young children come to school with much more mathematical competence than many people or teachers realize," he said. "Many parents and teachers assume that when kids go to school, they're basically blank slates, and they have to be spoon-fed everything nothing could be further from the truth."

Baroody's new book, "Fostering Children's Mathematical Power: An Investigative Approach to K-8 Mathematics Instruction," was published in August by Erlbaum Associates. Eight years in the writing, it draws on his own research and teaching experience, as well as on that of numerous others. Along with the text, the book is filled with suggested activities, problems and guidelines, many of which Baroody tested in local schools and with his own three children. It also includes cartoons.

Baroody said his goals in writing the book were to show prospective and in-service teachers why reform in math instruction was needed, and to provide them practical advice on how to implement standards for teaching issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989.

"One key problem with traditional instruction is that it is taught at a very abstract level, unconnected to children's everyday experience," Baroody said. Another is that it gives children only "a bag of math magic" -- pre-digested means for dealing with problems, learned mostly by rote. "They just know that it works, but they don't know why it works," he said.

Ultimately, "they stop thinking for themselves," Baroody said. "The end result is the crippling of problem-solving ability. Sooner or later -- perhaps with word problems, fractions, algebra, or calculus -- most students feel utterly lost and give up. In brief, traditional instruction robs children of mathematical power."

The goal of the NCTM standards and Baroody's book is to encourage a deeper understanding of math and better problem-solving skills through "inquiry-based" learning, rather than through traditional rote or drill. "I want students to see that mathematics makes sense and that there are often many intelligent ways of solving a problem," Baroody said.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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