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Math’s Order of Operations isn’t flawed; way it is being taught is

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 12:03 p.m. CDT

To the editor:

The guest commentary “History, context explain need for Iowa education reform” by Sue Atkinson has some valid — but also some misleading — points. 

She blames some of our educational woes on Constructivism, which is the theory that effective understanding of concepts is built on the prior knowledge of the individual.  Then she holds up Order of Operations as an example of teaching a bad concept.

Order of Operations is a natural law of mathematics that stems from the relationships between basic functions such as addition, multiplication and exponents. I am an engineer who has lived and studied overseas, and I assure you that order of operations is part of the universal language of mathematics around the world.

However, there is a significant problem with the way order of operations is taught in the United States. It is a poster child for much of what is wrong with American mathematical education. Taught without reference to the basic laws of mathematics from which it is derived, it is instead taught with meaningless acronyms and sayings such as PEMDAS and “Please excuse my dear aunt Sally.” 

When mathematics is taught in such a non-constructivist manner, with no connection to prior knowledge of the fundamentals on which it is built, it becomes meaningless, and leads students to believe that mathematics is a load of illogical garbage to be memorized and not understood. Nothing could be further from the truth.  If we are to support American industry with new minds, we must improve mathematics education in America. 

There is no single change to fix math understanding in America. This requires math to be taught based on logical relationships, not gimmicks; it means parents acknowledging the importance of math and encouraging interest in math; it means elementary school teachers who understand the logic, not just the memorized process; and it means focusing on critical thinking and problem solving, not just abstract concepts.

It takes a village to raise a child, and that means we must all be part of the solution.

Mark Monroe


Editor’s note: Monroe is a former Maytag employee who worked in engineering and information technology. He is now an associate professor of mathematics at Marshalltown Community College.

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