• Tara O'Brien

Old Math vs. New Math

A TikTok video posted by a teacher named, Vanwadude has taken the internet by storm sending many teachers and parents into a bit of a tizzy!

Credit: Vanwadude via TikTok

Old Math

Thinking back on my own elementary school math experience, I remember being shown math strategies with no deeper explanation about what I was doing or why. Here's an example... remember when your teacher showed you how to complete double digit addition and "carry the 1?" The teacher demonstrated the strategy, I practiced the strategy, and eventually I perfected the strategy. However, I had no idea what I was doing or why! The teacher never explained why I should carry the "1"

Credit: Vanwadude via TikTok


Double digit addition and carrying the "1" with no deeper discussion is just one example of "old Math" teaching practice. Old math is essentially...Teachers showing one strategy to students with no deeper understanding about the method, students practicing on worksheets, then students given a test that looks just like the worksheets. This kind of math is dull, worksheet based, and has no space for creativity or flexible thinking.


Old Math was based on rote memory of facts and memorization of one strategy

and one way of thinking for one kind of problem.

New Math is different. New math, emphasizes creativity, communication, application and flexible thinking. Rote learning math facts to ensure quick calculations still play a role. However, math concepts and strategies are discovered through collaboration and inquiry rather than through teacher directed explicit instruction and students are encouraged to explain and justify their thinking process.

What Does New Math Look Like?

There are a lot of different programs and teaching strategies that can be defined as "new math." I find that naturally differentiated math contexts are especially exciting to facilitate as a teacher. Here's a Kindergarten level example...six children sit around a table covered with manipulatives, math racks, and recording sheets. The teacher asks, "Without looking, how many feet are under the table?" Students are encouraged to use all of the resources on the table to solve the problem and collaborate with their classmates. Children watch each other's strategies and learn from each other. This math context is differentiated because the highest level mathematicians will likely skip count and record using numerals or a number sentence while the lowest level mathematicians can still solve the problem by drawing and one to one counting using their picture. After work time, the teacher asks each of the Kindergartners to share how they solved the problem. The strategies used to solve the context are the focus of the discussion. Every student at the table benefits from hearing about the different strategies used to solve the same problem. The teacher's role is to assess where each child is in their skill development and nudge them in the direction of developing a new more complex strategy. The teacher also reviews and models effective strategies to solve the problem.




Teachers and year level teams can create or buy programs with naturally differentiated math contexts. These contexts can be based on personal experience, stories, etc. I will explain my process for planning these contexts in another post.

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