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The term: New Math

  1. Apr 23, 2013 #1
    I always remember my dear departed grandmother referring to something called "New Math" when I was a youngster, but at the time I wasn't interested enough in whatever it was to look into it. However, I just read the Wiki page on it:


    And it looks like something that got phased out shortly before I entered grade school. From the face of it, it looks like a crazy, overoptimistic project, but I wasn't really there for it. Is there anybody that actually experienced this and was taught this in school, or someone who parented a child that encountered this movement? How did it work out? Is there some validity in this manner of early instruction in children "in an ideal society," at least? Or was it just misplaced to begin with--driven by cold war fears?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 23, 2013 #2
    Yes, I learned the New Math. And I got a master's degree in mathematics, and can tell you what it is all about.

    The story begins in about 1800 with Carl Gauss, possibly the best mathematician that ever lived. He wrote a text in Latin that put all of mathematics on a new intellectual basis we call "abstract algebra." It's the basis of group theory, which led to Riemannian geometry (Riemann was one of Gauss' graduate students) which is in turn the basis of much if not most of the mathematics used in physics. It also led to the axiomization of mathematics.

    The New Math is a very simplified version of all this. The trouble is, it is so simplified it's boring and useless. The real applications of it are way too abstract for high school students. So that was a flop.
  4. Apr 23, 2013 #3
    Interesting, although I'm sensing almost a contradiction. It was a flop but you learned it and went on to become a mathemetician. Is it that it was an approach that worked only for the "mathemically inclined," and that helped you in particular develop important skills which helped later, while it confused everyone else? Or was it that you would have gone into mathematics in either case and the New Math was just a flop in general, for everyone involved?
  5. Apr 23, 2013 #4


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    It is widely known here on PF that I have a grade 9 math education because of assaulting a math teacher in grade 10. The fact is, I flunked math every grade after 4, but we progressed based on overall grades rather than specific classes until high-school. New math was one of the main causes, along with the absolute worst teaching staff on the face of the planet.
    Bearing in mind that I was 10 years old when this crap was inflicted upon me, it was only the arithmetic component that I was subjected to. I loved the subject up until then. All of a sudden, I was told that I was no longer allowed to do division the proper way. I had to do what they called "short division" and we were penalized if we fell back into "long division". I never learned how, and by the time I was old enough to tell them what to do with it, I had forgotten how to do it properly. I would gladly throttle every one of the MF's who were involved in my Ontario education. (Oh, I forgot to mention that I was forcibly relocated to southern Ontario from my beloved here in Alberta in December of '65 when I was in grade 4.)
    I moved back here in '78, and began tending bar a couple of years later. After a few more years, one of the local high-school jocks graduated and came to work with us. Something looked familiar to me while he was doing a cash-out, so I took a closer look and there he was doing long division. Apparently, the Alberta school system hadn't been stupid enough to adopt that new crap. I got him to show me how to do it again, but unfortunately the lesson didn't take. I can still contact him, so maybe I should ask again. (By the bye, the last straw in public school was when my teacher, who was also the school's math teacher, yelled at me and whapped me with a ruler for winding my watch in class.) My only consolation is that surely all of them are dead by now.
    I can't help thinking that if those *****'s had left me alone I might have graduated high-school, maybe gone to university (I so much wanted an PhD in astrophysics), and had some sort of decent career. Fie on them all.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2013
  6. Apr 23, 2013 #5
    It was a flop because students and parents hated it as useless. It has no application in everyday life. Clock arithmetic. Who cares?

    I didn't like it either. I was not interested in mathematics at all in high school. It bored the hell out of me, and I usually took a nap in class. I got into math much later. Group theory IS interesting, but the interesting parts are way beyond what can be done in an ordinary high school.
  7. Apr 23, 2013 #6

    What the heck is short division?
  8. Apr 23, 2013 #7


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    New math. You have a thing that looks like an "L" but rotated 90° clockwise. It's like a long division frame, but without the line down the right side. The denominator goes under the crossbar, the numerator goes on the left of the vertical bar, and the quotient goes on top of the crossbar. There are a bunch of subtracted things underneath the denominator.
  9. Apr 23, 2013 #8
    Thanks for everyone's input. Looks as though the consensus so far is that this was an experiment gone wrong, very wrong in some circumstances:frown:
  10. Apr 23, 2013 #9
    It still seems to be taught at school. I and all my friends have learnt the short division method. In fact, a couple of years ago when we were introduced to long division, most people could not do it. To this day (as far as I know) a fair amount of people can not do it and do know care for it.

    I don't know what to think anymore…
  11. Apr 23, 2013 #10


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    Yeah. The Ontario school board, in about 1976 (2 years after I should have graduated grade 12 and perhaps started 13), publicly admitted that they had made a horrible mistake and reverted to normal math. Far too late for some of us.

    edit: Hi, L4xord. I wasn't ignoring you; you slipped in while I was composing. Sorry to hear that they're still teaching that crap.

    2nd edit: Just out of curiosity, what educational jurisdiction do you live in?
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2013
  12. Apr 23, 2013 #11


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    I took a look at the topics covered by it, in the wiki article. My high school still teaches many of those things in that same manner. For example in my sophomore honors algebra 2 class we started off immediately with groups and fields (we never did rings or modules though).
  13. Apr 23, 2013 #12


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    My recollection of short division was look at the problem , see the answer and write it down vs long division look at the problem, figure out the answer digit by digit with lots of intermediate steps. and write it down.

    More recently, we look at the problem, type it into Google and Google figures it out for harder problems ask PF.



    Personally, I liked the Trachtenberg system but nobody was interested in teaching it:

  14. Apr 23, 2013 #13


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    Well I love new math :!!), and I'm sorry they don't teach it anymore. I feel incredibly lucky that I was taught math that way - it laid the foundation for the rest of my life, really.
  15. Apr 23, 2013 #14


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    That would mean you are a Power Set.
  16. Apr 23, 2013 #15


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    Are the wikipedia articles about long and short division accurate? There isn't much different in the two methods they show.
  17. Apr 23, 2013 #16


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    The difference is in the writing of the intermediate results on down the page (long) vs little superscript numbers (which I don't remember writing) as you work from left to right.
  18. Apr 23, 2013 #17


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  19. Apr 23, 2013 #18
    I'm 58 and recall very well the nuns who taught my grade school telling us we were learning "New Math" which would be different from what our parents learned.

    Strangely, though, I don't recognize anything that is called "New Math" in that Wiki article. I do believe we were introduced to the concept of sets at some point but I don't recall it being so abstract as to be confusing, nor was it center of everything else.
  20. Apr 23, 2013 #19

    jim hardy

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    I went through grade school about a year ahead of "New Math". It appeared in Miami ca 1959 to best of memory. I was pretty good at math and remember a very pretty eighth grade girl (Sharon D.) who came to me for some help with her 'new math'. I was a ninth grader . We'd meet at the town library to work our respective math homeworks.

    I remember it this way -
    Old math taught us the mechanics of solving math problems. We learned "what" , and if a kid was interested enough he could figure out they "why" by playing with numbers just like you play with bicycle gears to understand them. Ever take apart a Sturmey Archer 3 speed bicycle transmission? Planetaries...

    Anyhow -

    Sharon's book tried to explain "Why" by introducing meaningless(to me) terms and rules to memorize. The drill questions in her book were not repetitively working problems that demonstrate arithmetic concepts like carry and factoring, instead they were memory tests- recite the rules.
    Took me an hour or two to figure out what were the terms in her book referring to.
    I showed her how to work some problems and then we went back and studied how the rules applied and from whence came the terms. Sharon was very bright and picked up right away. She went on to make very good grades in high school. I think she worked backward from the observations to the rules, like I do.

    That summer my Aunt from Seattle asked me about new math - her daughters were struggling with it too. Their Dad was an engineer and he taught them the same method i'd shown Sharon.

    So - in my opinion "New Math" is not for the masses.
    "Why" before "What" is contrary Descarte's admonition :
    "never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such".

    There are kids bright enough to learn 'new math' as evidenced by Lisa's experience. They are the fortunate few.

    For the gifted, 'New Math' is just an appetizer.

    Myself I blame 'new math' for this country's dearth of engineers and scientists. It discouraged most kids early on.

    You see, we plodders learn by doing and we figure out the rules empirically.
    We need to keep our "Descartes before the Hors ( d'ouvres)."

    That's my opinion and I bet you're sorry you asked.

    old jim
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2013
  21. Apr 23, 2013 #20


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    I'm glad to hear you say that because I also didn't recognize anything in that wiki article, nor do I have any memories of it being strange or confusing. I was beginning to think all of my childhood memories of math were false.

    I think I had a bit of both, luckily old math came first.

    I thought this bit from The Straight Dope was funny.

    Last edited: Apr 23, 2013
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