One Teacher's Opinion:
"Back to basics" has been touted so often for so many academic courses that it has taken on the aspects of a cliché'. That is it has become trite because of overuse. I would hate to think that math teachers would ever be required to go "back to basics." Instead, what I advocate is Basics First in all subjects, but especially in all of the mathematics courses.
The term "Basics First" was coined by The American Federation of Teachers several years ago. The original idea was to end social promotion, and to ensure that every child was reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. What I would like to do is get math teachers everywhere to buy into the Basics First plan for mathematics. My vision of Basics First for math is that students enrolling in Algebra I could show mastery of all of the different fundamental mathematical computations that are encountered in a rigorous curriculum through 6th grade.
With the advent of "new math", "new-new math", and the availability of calculators in our schools and homes it seems as though the basic skills of arithmetic have become worthless. In reality the skills we generally refer to as "basic skills" in arithmetic are as important to students, parents, and teachers today as they ever have been.
Research shows two things to be true about learning mathematics:
1) It is almost
impossible to skip a level of mathematics and expect to be successful at
next level. That, unlike subjects that are mostly dependent on reading skills, people who
are trying to learn mathematics without having all of the pre-requisite skills for the level they
are studying are generally not able to catch themselves up without going back and getting
the skills they lack from a tutor, or a remedial class.
2) Just like most other subjects a person may be trying to master, mathematics learning is
totally dependent on prior knowledge. In order to be successful learning new topics one
must have 90% - 95% understanding of the material that is being built upon.
No one likes the idea of having to learn the multiplication tables when the work can be done on a calculator just like no one likes to use the rules that govern grammar just to get an idea across to others that could be accomplished without knowing the rules for grammar. However, if you expect your ideas to be understood they better be written in a standard form that has been agreed on by our society so that the audience can concentrate on the message and not on the task of trying to decipher and interpret the meaning of a poorly written message.
Mathematics is no different. There are certain agreed upon rules that govern the language of mathematics. These rules are standardized throughout the world and can be thought of as the grammar of mathematics. This grammar is taught in math classes everywhere. The grammar learned in the elementary grades is the basis for the higher-level language of Algebra, Geometry, and the upper-division courses in mathematics. This is my argument for advocating Basics First. Without a solid grasp of the basics more complex mathematics cannot be understood at a level that makes them valuable for solving real problems, and closes the doors to those who have the ability and inclination to study math intense subjects, but lack the basic knowledge required to understand the new subject.
The result of leaving high school without the math skills required for college means that we have many students who are college bound but not college ready. It is a sad commentary on our society that students who lack basic skills are still going to college. Most of these students are taking multiple remedial math courses to learn the skills that they were taught in high school, but who failed to learn.
I continue to maintain traditional pedagogy's vision of quality and excellence. I refuse to engage in time-consuming, trivial activities that have been popularized by the educationists who seem to believe that it is possible for kids to learn without effort. They have been brainwashed by popular culture into believing that by making education a painless, fun experience for kids that they will still be able to learn all of the difficult material that a classical education requires without ever having to do any real work. My kids learn the old fashioned way - they work.
For more thoughts along these lines please go to College Bound on this web site.