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New Math vs Old Math: What Parents Need to Know

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It’s Wednesday afternoon, and you’re sitting down to help your child with their math homework. You take a look at the directions and feel completely lost. What are all these circles and boxes? This isn’t how you learned math. 

‘New math’, or Common Core math, can look very different from ‘old math.’ Both methods get to the same answer, but your child’s path to the solution may seem strange to you. 

Many parents have found themselves in a similar situation, not understanding how to help their child with these new methods. You can find loads of videos on social media of parents trying to understand Common Core math problems. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, and we can all relate.

It may seem easier to just teach your child how to get the right answer the old way. But this is likely to confuse them as they go back to the classroom, and their ‘new math’, the next day. And, even though it may seem ridiculous, there are good reasons for teaching math in this new way.

Does this mean that you have to become an expert on new math? No! We’ll walk you through the basics and share some great tools to help you support your child in their new math skills.

What is Old Math?

‘Old math’ has a strong focus on rote memorization. Students would memorize many math facts and formulas for solving problems. Then they’d simply follow the rules without really understanding why they were doing what they were doing. But if it ended in the right answer, you were all good.

This old-school method is the math curriculum that most parents and teachers grew up learning. Think of memorizing your times tables or the formula for the area of a circle.

‘Old math’ methods are probably what you still use today if you need to solve a math problem. And you likely assumed that’s what your child would learn too. But in most school districts, that’s not the case.

What is New Math?

Math education has really changed over the years. 

Between 2010 and 2013, a major, worldwide shift was seen in math curricula. This different approach was part of the new Common Core standards that have affected every subject and grade level from elementary school to high school. 

This ‘new math’ was designed to give students a better understanding of mathematical concepts. The standards seek to create problem-solving skills and an ability to apply math concepts to real-world problems. 

This means that solving math problems now looks very different. Though the answer at the end is ultimately the same as someone using old math techniques, the process is often longer and more visual. 

Did you know?

If your child has a Prodigy Math Membership, you'll get access to our library of video lessons.

Made by teachers, these clips for kids explain how to solve math problems using new math methods. Homework help? Done!

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Why did math change to Common Core?

The biggest criticism of ‘old math’ was that students didn’t really understand what they were doing. They could get to the right answer, but never fully grasped the ideas behind the arithmetic. And because of this, they struggled to apply math concepts to real-world problems. 

It’s clear that kids today will need different skills to thrive in new and upcoming tech. And a big part of that is evolving how we learn about math.

In 2003, a group of mathematicians set out to build a math curriculum that works for the future. Those principles are what we now call Common Core math.

Common Core math standards aim to show students what the numbers mean and why formulas and algorithms work. 

Many Common Core math practices involve visualizing problems and their solutions, either by drawing them out or using hands-on items (also called manipulatives). This helps students better understand what numbers symbolize and how and why problems are truly solved. 

The need for a change in the nation’s math curriculum didn’t happen overnight. It’s been in the works for decades. As well as recognizing that new technology means that we need more math skills, research studies have shown a steady decline in the math skills of the average high school graduate.

Parent using new math methods with his child.

4 Examples of New Math

Common Core standards use different strategies to help kids better understand numbers and their value.

Here are a few ways Common Core is teaching early math concepts.

Addition

Addition is the operation that’s going to be most similar to how you learned math. Students can practice adding two single-digit numbers together with a number line, boxes on a ten square, or by simply counting objects (including using their fingers). 

Adding double-digit numbers is where new math strays away from older math practices. 

If a student is adding together 24+35, the first step is to split the problem by place value. 

So the student writes out the 10’s place numbers, adding together 20+30=50. 

Then, they add the one's place values, 4+5=9. 

Then they add the answers together, 50+9=59. 

This new math method is likely a trick you use without even thinking about it. But it helps your child cement their understanding of place value at a much earlier age.

Subtraction  

In Common Core, subtraction happens by doing addition. I know what you’re thinking…crazy, right? 

But usually, addition is much easier for students than subtraction. So, Common Core math teaches them to restructure problems so they’re simpler to solve. 

Our example problem will be 32-12. 

Instead of lining up the numbers on top of each other, the students focus on the smaller number, in this case, 12. They add easy numbers to it until they reach the larger number, 32. 

To start, they may write 12+3=15. 

Then 15+5=20.

Then 20+10=30. 

And finally 30+2=32. 

Now that we’ve reached the larger number in the equation, we add up the second number in each of these mini-equations. 

3+5+10+2=20.

And we’ve arrived at the answer, 20. 

This method may seem more time-consuming, but it’s much more manageable for students. It solidifies the relationship between addition and subtraction. And students can feel more confident in their ability to add these small numbers to solve a difficult subtraction problem.

Here's another explainer below! 👇

Multiplication

Multiplication is where it starts to get more tricky. Common Core standards teach multiplication with a box method. 

Before we dive into a more complex problem, have you ever sat and thought about what multiplication means? 

Let’s look at the simple problem: 2×3.

Though you’ll know the answer quickly, have you ever pictured it in terms of rows and columns? 

2×3 is telling you there are 2 rows of 3 objects (or 3 rows of 2 objects). And if you illustrate that, then it’s easy to see your answer — 6!

Here's an example illustration that shows 2 rows of 3 objects. The total is the same as 2×3.

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Now let’s examine the more complicated problem, what is 4203×5?

Drawing this out in bricks would take a while. And you likely don’t have this memorized either. 

This is where Common Core’s box method comes in handy.

First, draw two lines to create a box or grid.

Just like with addition, the next step is to break both numbers down by their place values.

So 4203 becomes 4000, 200, 0 and 3. The other number we're multiplying has a place value of one, so it will stay at 5.

Now that these numbers are easier to work with, multiply each number by the number(s) on the other side of the grid and put the results in the box between both lines.

Your box should now look like this:

The box method used in new math.

Finally, add together the numbers in the middle of the box to discover the answer — 21,015.

Though this method seems really strange at first, it takes a lot of the mystery out of multiplication. It also lays a foundation for algebraic concepts to come. With this box method, it’s easier for students to understand what is happening during multiplication and build their logical thinking mindset.

Here's another example of the box method in action! 👇

Fractions

Fractions are taught earlier in the Common Core math curriculum. And they’re usually first introduced through visual representations.

This is usually in the form of a pie graph — where the colored spaces represent the top number of the fraction and the total number of spaces represent the bottom number of the fraction. 

Other shapes may be used as well, such as triangles, rectangles, or hexagons. This helps them better understand how fractions represent parts of a whole.

Then, when students learn how to add, subtract, and multiply fractions, the same visual representations are used. Fractions are still displayed as colored-in shapes, helping students see exactly how the values are being manipulated. 

Is New Math better than Old Math?

The people evaluating American education all seem to agree that there needs to be a change.

But getting everyone to agree on what that change should be is more difficult. 

Unfortunately, Common Core has not had the huge positive impact that educators hoped for when first implemented. Some states have since returned to the older style of mathematics education. Others have kept the Common Core standards. 

It’s hard to say which is better, as each style has advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a look at them.

The advantages of New Math

There are many reasons why Common Core standards were implemented. Here are a few of the advantages to these new standards.

  • Common Core teaches students how to use math algorithms in real-world situations. Remember asking your algebra teacher when you would ever use the Pythagorean theorem in real life? Common Core seeks to have students understand these formulas and algorithms on a deeper level so they can use them when needed. This better prepares students for college and workplace success. 
  • Common Core standards better line up with the global mathematics education system. Common Core standards seek to unite the world of mathematics. From scientists to engineers and everyone in between, we’re now able to better collaborate with our international peers to envision and create the future. Countries known for having excellent math education, like Singapore, use similar standards and teaching methods.
  • The curriculum is consistent throughout the country. On a smaller scale, it also helps students moving from one school system to another. They can more quickly pick up right where they left off thanks to a curriculum that does not change from state to state or city to city.

The disadvantages of New Math

No system is perfect. And change can be hard and uncomfortable. The biggest disadvantages of new math lie in these facts. 

  • Many parents are struggling to support their child with their math homework. Even in the early years of education, parents are finding the methods complicated and difficult. This is a shock to many parents, and they’re left seeking out tutors or other outside help much sooner than anticipated. 
  • It can be difficult to find help. Because it’s still fairly new, it’s hard to find tutors or other academic help that understand the new procedures. As students progress into high school and higher level topics, help gets even harder to find. 
  • Common Core has been a lot for teachers to implement. Many educators have found it difficult to teach math standards that they themselves didn’t learn as children. And for educators who teach multiple subjects, they’ve had to implement new standards across many different areas all at one time.
  • New standards detract from important math basics. Many people believe this new way of mathematics education detracts from students learning key skills like arithmetic. On top of that, many elementary teachers have expressed that younger students simply can’t grasp the more conceptual understanding that these standards strive to teach. 
Child doing homework with parent in kitchen table

How parents can embrace new math (without needing to know it)

We know many parents find new math confusing. You didn’t anticipate having to relearn it all over again with your child.

And if you have to help your child with math, but don’t know how this new math works, it’s especially frustrating. You know how to do it the old way, but you don’t want to confuse your already struggling child even more. 

You’re not alone in this frustration! Even math teachers and school administrators are divided on whether or not Common Core standards are helpful and useful in the classroom. The feelings are especially strong at the elementary and middle school levels. 

However, Common Core standards help children learn key life skills like problem-solving. And these lessons are great for encouraging a growth mindset (for both you and your child). All while helping students develop a better conceptual understanding of numbers and math. 

You don’t have to understand new math to help your child succeed in class. Whether they’re in 1st or 8th grade, Prodigy Math is here to help!

In Prodigy Math, your child has fun exploring fantasy world filled with pets, spells and quests – while they tackle personalized, curriculum-aligned math challenges. 

As well as helping kids learn to enjoy math, we also want to make it easier for parents too. 

That’s why our parent accounts give you regular insight into how your child is doing at math with tools like your Monthly Report and Classroom Learning.

And if you’re looking for homework help without needing to be an expert on new math – check out our optional Math Memberships. These memberships offer tons of extra game content that can help keep your child engaged in math, like our popular Mythical Epics. Parents also get:

  • Video Lessons – access teacher-made clips that explain Common Core math concepts
  • Practice Sheets – get worksheets to practice math offline (and have some coloring fun!)
  • Goals and Rewards – set personal learning goals for your child and give them in-game rewards

This engaging math game will quickly become your new favorite homework helper. Try it out today with your free parent account!

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