If you’re good at them, math speed drills might be a pleasant memory. For a student with a math disability, they’re probably not. Nor timed times tables. Nor flashcards. Nor anything that puts pressure on the student to make incredibly fast mental calculations.

If you’re like most adults, you definitely remember these methods of memorizing math facts, however. Pleasant or not, they were part of your education, and we all are strongly tempted to repeat the education we experienced as we teach our children.

Not a game of watch, repeat

Have you pulled out the flashcards lately? Did your child look a little less than happy for them?

There’s growing research that we may be missing the point with an overemphasis on the rote memorization of math facts.

In an interview for US News, Stanford University’s Jo Boaler says, it was the low-achieving students who it turned out had focused the most on memorization in her 2009 study. They had internalized the view that math was an exercise in memorization and set themselves to memorizing. The problem was, when they faced a challenge or needed an answer that they had not memorized, they did not demonstrate the flexibility to find the answer.

Boaler also points out that a truly mathematically competent person might occasionally forget a math fact, but they can use what they can remember to still find the answer.

For example, if I don’t remember 11×11, I can probably more quickly remember that 11×10=110 (didn’t every kid in school love the 10 times table?). Now I just need one more 11 to make 121.

Navigating the real world

Boaler thinks the ability to “figure out” the answer makes me a better mathematician than the student who has memorized it all. After all, even that student might freeze or accidentally recall 132 (the answer to 11×12) instead of 121. This student can’t even figure out a way to check his/her work, because the student either memorized the correct fact or not. There’s no method.

Of course, there’s at least some debate whether flashcards or speed drills might have their place within a truly mathematically rich curriculum. Boaler doesn’t think so, but others have disagreed with her.

The bigger point, however, is it’s time to start teaching our children how to think mathematically. Put a math problem in the context of a real world problem. Use real objects to demonstrate it. Manipulate the numbers. Then and only then write the math fact. Teach your child that numbers are not the enemy, but used constantly in his/her everyday environment.

Putting the W in holistic

Finally, remember that so much of mathematical success in a child with a disability depends, not on the further rapid recall of math facts, but on filling in the wholes that developed years ago. Go back and help your child develop the number sense to much easier problems (not just the correct answer) by playing with and manipulating numbers. Use brain training to develop your child’s visual memory and steady images. Doing the two things with your child will help them far more than any flashcard, even if you later incorporate flashcards somewhere into your routine again.

More of this here.

Key Takeaways:

In math: knowing *how* matters more than knowing *what.*
Pure memorization can lead to uncheckable mistakes.
Students who believe math is an exercise in memory become poorer students.


Well, since the standardized tests expect full mastery of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts within 100 at rapid recall rates by 3rd grade, then this study is saying that the standardized tests are wrong? There is no time to learn them gradually by repeatedly figuring them out, nor is there time on the testing to sit there with scratch paper and count it all up if it isn't memorized.

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