A Thought Provoking Math Experiment

…For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning faculties…

I found this article so interesting!  It was originally published in the NEA’s own journal in 1935.  Basically, a New York superintendent got permission to try a revolutionary experiment to try to improve the terrible math skills of his students.  He got permission to virtually abandon all formal math instruction in the first 6 years of school in 5 classrooms.  Instead of teaching drills, memorization and “pencil work,” he had his teachers concentrate on his “new 3-R’s” — to read, to reason and to recite.

He writes:

The children in these rooms were encouraged to do a great deal of oral composition. They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division. They were thoroughly enjoying their hours in school.

He had the teachers work on measurements and problem solving with the students– estimating distances and the like.  Not only did he find kids who were enjoying school more in his new classrooms, but they became much better at reasoning in the absence of math lessons.

The results of his experiments are really astounding.  I really related to the fact that the traditionally schooled kids kept trying to figure out how to squash numbers together to get an answer to a word problem (multiply this by this?  Or maybe add this and this and this?) without understanding the nature of the problem, so they were never able to solve them.  The kids who had not been formally taught math tackled the problem itself and quite easily figured out the answers.

By 1932, it was working so well that he got permission to convert about half of the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classrooms to his experiment.  When they tested the math skills of the 6th graders later, comparing those who had been traditionally schooled in math the whole time with those who had just that year been exposed to formal math for the first time, these were the results:

In the earlier tests the traditionally trained people excelled, as was to be expected, for the tests involved not reasoning but simply the manipulation of the four fundamental processes. By the middle of April, however, all the classes were practically on a par and when the last test was given in June, it was one of the experimental groups that led the city. In other words these children, by avoiding the early drill on combinations, tables, and that sort of thing, had been able, in one year, to attain the level of accomplishment which the traditionally taught children had reached after three and one-half years of arithmetical drill.

This is a long article and it goes on, but I found it all so interesting!  He also gives his schedule for what math concepts are taught each year of the first 6 years (not counting kindergarten, which was not the academic class that it is now).  Food for thought…


4 thoughts on “A Thought Provoking Math Experiment

  1. I read that article the other day too – isn’t it interesting! I’m amazed at how much Billy is learning since we dropped any formal “maths work”.


  2. I have read this article too. Quite some time ago. I am so glad you have blogged about it as I have an inspector coming for registration next week. This will help explain why we spend more time in “life” maths that can’t be shown as examples of work and why my 11yo son is only doing SM 3A. But then again like the kids in this article he is excelling because he understands the application so much more.

    Best wishes
    Jen in Oz


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