Why Johnny Can’t Compute: The Failure of the Old Math

Why Johnny Can't ComputeNearly every leader in our nation is saying that we need to have students get more STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), so that our country will not fall behind technologically and economically from the rest of the world. But, what they don’t say (possibly, because they don’t know), is that the type of math that is needed for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Computer Science (CS) is not the math that is normally taught in high school.

I saw this problem first hand, when working with California (arguably the most technologically advanced state in the nation) on their K-12 standards for ICT and computer science. Our team of content experts wanted to ensure that high school students who were in a program specifically designed for them to enter into career in ICT would have some understanding of Boolean logic and an understanding of the binary and hexadecimal base systems that are used by computers. But, the educators who were coordinating the development of the standards apparently didn’t understand what Boolean logic and base systems were, and removed them from the draft standards; with only the continual insistence from the content experts getting them into the final draft.

The current Common Core math standards have a similar problem: they are practically forcing schools to teach the math that was important to the 20th century (where it was literally necessary to have more rocket scientists) instead of the 21st century (where we need more computer and data scientists). To be fair to Common Core, it does make many steps in the right direction, such as having a greater emphasis on students truly understanding how fractions work, and more emphasis on statistics.

There was a mathematical reform that occurred in the United States that was very relevant to the technological needs of the 21st century. This was the “New Math” that was taught in the 1960’s, and reviled by nearly everyone who was taught it.   In fact, I hesitate even saying “New Math” here, because when I say “New Math” to most people who were taught this in elementary school, they have a very violent negative reaction.   And for good reason: “New Math” was taught to kids who were not ready yet for such an abstract way of thinking. It was taught with no relevance to computers, because computers were just beginning to evolve, and were not something any elementary school could afford to have. And it was forced on to teachers and parents without a good explanation about why it was important. (In this, Common Core could have learned a thing or two from the failure of “New Math”, since the backlash that has occurred to Common Core seems to be around ways of doing math that parents don’t understand).

A popular book written in 1973, which greatly criticized “New Math” and was part of its downfall, was “Why Johnny Can’t Add: The Failure of the New Math”. In which it made many salient points.   The problem is now, we NEED the concepts of the “New Math” because set theory, base systems, and symbolic logic are the foundations of 21st century technology and science.   Hence, a new book should now be written: “Why Johnny Can’t Compute: The Failure of the Old Math”.

I have hope that groups like Khan Academy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others can start a public awareness campaign about why we need Common Core to continue to evolve to include more “New Math” concepts, and why it is important for their kids to learn it, so they can get good ICT careers.

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