May 30, 2000

 

Dear Dr. Curcio,

 

I carefully listened to what you said at the recent PS/IS 89 math forum, and on the CBS news broadcast May 28th, and found myself impressed by your assurance that the current criticisms of the TERC curriculum largely spring from a failure of communication; which I took to mean, a failure properly and fully to appreciate what TERC is aimed to do, and how.

 

With this assurance in mind, I should like to pose to you one or two questions which there was insufficient time to raise at the math forum: and while I appreciate that you have other weightier demands on your time, I would be grateful for your response.

 

As I understand it then, the TERC curriculum is aimed, among other things perhaps, to foster in children facility in giving expression to an understanding of mathematics in discursive form. Aimed, that is, to foster in children a conceptual understanding of mathematics as opposed to training them to be mere flesh and blood computers. Put this way, one immediately sees why the debate in its present form is such an unpleasant wrangle; for to my mind, so long as the discussion is framed in terms of a choice between understanding mathematics and doing mathematics, we must expect it to produce more heat than light.

Now as I recall, at the PS/IS 89 math forum it was conceded on all sides that children must be taught what were there referred to as "the basic math facts"; such "facts" as include, for instance, what used to be taught in the form of "multiplication tables", and so on. As I understand it, the aim of teaching children such basic math facts as these was what moved those who designed the TERC curriculum to put the playing of math games at the foundation of the curriculum, during the childís first years of exposure to math. I suppose this was done by way of providing an alternative to the old fashioned rote memorization method for the teaching of basic math facts. And believe me, I readily see that if it were possible to learn such facts by having fun, we might expect all our children to become math wizards.

 

With all this in mind, here at last is my question to you: on average, can you tell me, how much time do children require playing which games, specifically, before they can reasonably be expected to master the "facts" of multiplication which used to be learned by rote memorization? Youíll see that Iíve run at least two different questions together here; so perhaps I should take care to untangle them for you, rather than leave you to decipher my meaning.

 

What I should in the first place to know is what research data supports the claims made as to childrenís mastering the same "basic math facts" by means of the TERC games as were learned by the old method?

 

Are some games more likely to be useful than others; if so which?

 

How much time playing the most useful games does it require for the average child to acquire mastery of those "facts"?

 

At what stage in a childís career is she, or he, expected to have acquired mastery of these facts?

 

What steps are taken, what programs are in place, to assist those children who for whatever reason have not mastered these "facts" by that time?

 

What steps are being taken to inform parents of how much time is necessary to acquire this knowledge? (For I donít suppose that sufficient time can be devoted to playing these games during school hours.)

 

This last question brings to light a second area of concern to me; for plainly the TERC curriculum is designed to require that every childís school experience in learning mathematics requires supplementation by hours of learning at home. But what of all the families in which the adults have insufficient freedom to provide that time? And even in case of those parents who could make the time but donít, surely you agree it would be unjust to deliver the parentsí irresponsibility on the child? What can and is being done for such children?

There are more questions that occur to me however, some among them are; parents at home must at least encourage their children to play the TERC games, but if they have no idea which among them is of the first importance, and which is less so, they - I might say "we" at this point - will feel pressured to treat them all equally. But it must be unfair, as well as unreasonable, to require parents to do what is not possible. For there are, as you must know, many different pressures upon parents at home: children have other homework, and in surprising quantity, in my experience, from the earliest years: then it is necessary, too, and no mere special treat when time is available, for children to play, both alone and with others: then children must eat, and sleep, and do all the other things that must be done, such as learn to tidy up after themselves, and so on: last but not least, parents have demands on their time also, of various kinds, including the demand to sit quietly when time allows with their children, to establish those mystic bonds of shared memory, perhaps in reading to them, or in making up and telling stories, upon which the childís future emotional well being may be said to depend: and, as Iím sure I donít need to tell you, parents have lives of their own, and many of us are under grave pressure to overlook this fact, which, being overlooked, will do neither parent or child any good: in short for a host of reasons parents cannot always be free to spend the time necessary to play these games or help with other math homework, especially when we have no textbook to refer to, and have no knowledge as to what has been studied already at school, and how far an understanding of the "basic math facts" is to be presumed upon.

 

This is rather a longer letter than I had thought to write, and much longer than you will be pleased to have, I donít doubt; which I think proves one fact indisputably, one fact which I heard you make mention of on TV and at the math forum, parents simply donít know enough about the actual practical side of the TERC curriculum to be in a position fairly to assess it: we were allowed insufficient time by those who organized that math night at PS/IS 89, in my opinion, nor, might I say, were some among the answers offered us there altogether as frank, specific, and so informative as, speaking for myself, could have been wished.

 

When can find time I hope you will provide me some specific answers to some, perhaps obvious, but specific questions; and rest assured, I will share them with other parents at my school who are also rather in the dark about TERC, and how best to assist their children, and their childrenís teachers, accomplish their shared goal of educating our children.

 

I look forward to hearing from you as soon as you can find the time for me, and remain, in the meantime,

 

yours sincerely,

Garry Dobbins