Math in the Media

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Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"The New New Math," by Martin Gardner. New York Review of Books, 24 Septempber 1998 .

Martin Gardner's article is a sharp attack on the "new new math," or "fuzzy math," as he calls it. By this he means math that has grown out of the NCTM standards, especially in its most egregious forms. He concedes "That the new new math has positive aspects goes without saying," but concentrates his fire on implementations of it that seem to have little mathematical content.

While Gardner discusses a number of topics in his article, he concentrates the bulk of his attention on how the "new new math" is actually taught in the classroom. In particular, he examines the algebra textbook Focus on Algebra: An Integrated Approach. He observes that "this huge text contains 843 pages and weighs close to four pounds." He cites an article by John Leo that appeared in U.S. News and World Report, which observes that "equations don't show up until page 165, and the first solution of a linear equation, which comes on page 218, is reached by guessing and checking." Gardner states that "When it comes to actual mathematics the text is for the most part clear and accurate, with a strong emphasis on understanding why procedures work, and on inducements to think creatively...The trouble is that the book's mathematical content is often hard to find in the midst of material that has no clear connection to mathematics." He documents his contention by citations of numerous items in this thick book that are either irrelevant or trivial.

Gardner concludes by bemoaning low teachers' salaries, which discourages (potentially) excellent teachers from entering, or remaining in, the field, as "what matters more than anything else is having trained teachers who understand and love mathematics, and are capable of communicating its mystery and beauty to their pupils."

The December 3, 1998 issue of the New York Review of Books contains an exchange of correspondence about this article.

---Steven H. Weintraub