The Basic Facts of Math

Much has been made lately of Math, more specifically of the new strategies to teach and learn math concepts . Many have questioned the reason for change, and even resorted to the ‘when I was a kid in school… this was the way it was. Why change?’ The concern seems to be all about the ‘Basic’ part, that being math facts. There are those who feel that students should not use varying strategies to come to an answer for a math question, but be taught one strategy, preferably the one that we all learned ‘way back in the day. As one person said in an interview, “Just give them one way, and have them memorize it.” Sounds so simple, and actually, I taught for a number of years with that little mantra in mind. For many students the one general strategy that hinged on the ability to memorize was used extensively; we wore out flashcards, progress charts, test booklets etc. and most – not all – knew the answer to 6X9. At least, for as long as it took to write the test. Those students could ‘do’ school, because they could memorize like crazy. But I remember one little girl to whom this flurry of math facts drill made no sense, had no context, and was not going to be memorized no matter what. I stopped pushing her – and should have done so much earlier – and began wondering how many others were not really retaining or using this information no matter how hard we tried this one strategy: give them the information and tell them to memorize it. So intent on math facts, we barely scraped the surface of problem-solving, using information to come to logical conclusions, creating a plan for finding solutions. Math anxiety was just the cross to bear for those to whom memorization made no sense. And, we were all good with that approach; it fit the day (or so we thought), and was just the accepted practice. We all thought the straightest route to a student’s success was the path well-trod – math facts and predictable, rigid mathematical equations being that path. Reflecting on it, I think it was a little like the disciples continually asking Jesus how to make sure they got to heaven. They wanted the straight and quickest path, with the least complications possible. Just tell us, and then it will be fine. They were never satisfied with Jesus answering with a question or a parable, basically saying, “Here’s the problem, you go figure it out.”
In general, the ‘new’ approach focuses on building confidence in every learner to view math as an interesting language, not a scary and confusing bunch of numbers with one elusive answer to seek. The traditional methods of understanding this language does not help students to become citizens of the 21st century: young people who are creative, collaborative, innovative problem-solvers. Parents have spoken about the attributes of the high school graduate in the coming 5, 10, 20 years, and they are nowhere near the ‘tell me what I need to know’ kind of person. The information gathered has formed the Inspiring Education document, which has in turn prompted a whole curriculum redesign around creating Engaged Thinkers, Ethical Citizens with and Entrepreneurial Spirit. http://www.education.alberta.ca will give the reader much more information about Inspiring Education.
Back to those Math facts – they were never really tossed out of the knowledge base. We do our fair share of worksheets, flashcards, and all the rest. We always appreciate the time parents will take at home, in the car, or while waiting for soccer practice to start to help review those same facts, because they are important. They simply aren’t everything. Math is much more than basic facts. And education in 2014 is much more than it was‘back in the day.’ These are exciting times in education!

About sbaier2014

Recently retired Principal of Holy Spirit Catholic Schools, a regional school division in Southern Alberta. Had a wonderfully challenging career!
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1 Response to The Basic Facts of Math

  1. Don Flaig says:

    Some thoughts…

    I liked your writing in the May newsletter. Yesterday we had a brief conversation about different strategies for long division…it feels like we are driven to teaching the kids several strategies because we are looking for a way that they understand and can learn.

    Yet, we are also “driven” to find a common strategy so we don’t confuse the kids. Some kids, like the little girl in your article, just can’t memorize a series of steps bereft of any meaning, like a series of random sounds or symbols that you can’t hang anything onto.

    I keep coming back to Number Sense. What do those symbols on the page mean? What is happening when I move them around on paper and add more symbols? As an adult, when I move a number from one side of an equation to the other, there is a whole new world of meaning. For a kid who is not finding math easy, that whole world of meaning is not available.

    Just ramblin’ on.

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