Math classes today certainly look very different from when I was a kid. For one thing, students are out of their desks touching stuff. They handle lego, blocks, and coins in various parts of the classroom, and work together in groups solving problems. When I was kid, we rarely got out of our desks, let alone touched anything in math class. Most of our time was spent memorizing numerical facts, listening to the teacher, and being drilled with many exercises. Kids would seem to have it less dreary today, but is this new way of teaching math actually more effective?
Kids may “understand” the concept of multiplication, but it’s surprising how many of those kids can’t recite their times tables. Students don’t add two digits by two digits by carrying over a number to the next column anymore. Instead, they are asked to estimate first, and then arrive at the answer by coneptualizing tens and ones. Long division? That’s passe too. Much better to understand the concept by drawing out groups, or by manipulating blocks of ten with single remainder blocks.
The problem with math minus rote drills is that everything becomes so time consuming. By the time kids work through conceptualizing their way to figuring out 56/8, they have likely exhausted their energy for tackling the larger problem. It’s like trying to teach piano without telling kids which key corresponds to which note. Some kids would tinker around and figure things out on their own, but wouldn’t it be a lot faster if they were just told where the notes are?
In a recent Globe and Mail article, Margaret Wente explains how math education in Canada has stunted our kids’ abilities to tackle the most basic problems. She claims that Canada is behind the times in its rejection of “rote” math, but I would point out that Canadian-made JUMP math is the exception that is making headway at schools across Canada and the UK. JUMP is a proponent of “guided discovery,” a method which advocates rote memorization and drills with guided conceptualization.
When it comes to encouraging understanding and creativity in math or music, there’s no need to throw out drills, memorization, and discipline. Why are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater?