What is UP with the multiplication tables?

By Lisa Cooley | Dec 30, 2012
Make learning whole.

Jackson — Math education is in an abysmal state in this country.

 

How do we know it? Count the people in your life who believe they have something called “math anxiety.” Count the people who are very willing to say about themselves, “I’m not a math person.” People are very willing to put themselves down, if it means nobody will ask them to demonstrate any sort of mathematical thinking. Get those fractions away from me. I don’t do math.


I am in a pretty funny position on this issue, myself. I have never been interested in math...never more interested than required, to get out the other end of whatever math tunnel I was required to crawl through.

And yet, in my childhood home, math was a subject of dinner-table conversation. Father, brother, sister, all lovers of math, all with high aptitude, all of whom pursued math through higher education. To reject the importance of math was to reject the religion of a normal person’s childhood home. Even now in my heart I believe a certain level of math is critical to the development of needed skills and experiences. But as I say it, I’m aware that I can’t do my multiplication tables. You should see me try to calculate the Maine 5% sales tax at my craft show booth! Can’t do it.

For math education to redeem itself for future generations, it has to look very, very different from  what it looks like now. Doing math should be as easy to use as reading words. What makes it seem like such a specialized, difficult, unattractive skill? What makes people who love to read books run screaming in the other direction when confronted with a pack of seven hotdogs and a pack of twelve hotdog buns and the decision of how many of each to buy in order to come out even?

One thing I know is that we have to take math out of quarantine. We have to merge it with the rest of life. It is pretty much too late for me -- math is a downer, always will be. But let’s not make it a downer for future generations, out of a desire to see them suffer the way we did. (Bill Cosby: “We walked five miles to school every day! Uphill! Both ways! And we were thankful!”)

It’s amazing how many people hold a view of public education today that consists only of, “Kids today need to learn their &%$# multiplication tables!” They believe that a “back to basics” change is what’s needed. They believe they have nailed the problems of public education: we need to stop coddling children with newfangled kinder/gentler teaching methods  and get them to knuckle down and do it. Life isn’t fun.

But the classrooms of today ARE “back to basics” factories. They have to be. They are driven by a testing environment which values the regurgitation of facts over the understanding of concepts and skills.That environment is failing our kids.

We ARE teaching math. We ARE teaching the multiplication tables. It’s just not taking. There are a lot of reasons for it and none of them amount to the coddling and gentle-fying of classroom practices.

I’ve watched this TED talk a few times, showing it to various math teacher friends. http://tedxmanhattanbeach.com/past-events/conference-october-2011/speakers/john-bennett/. Math teacher John Bennett shares his struggles with the question, “When are we going to need math?” This video really gives us a chance to rethink math education.

John Bennett started life as an algebra teacher with what he thought were three three fail-safe ways to get kids interested in math. First: “Math is everywhere!” No response. Then, “Math is helpful! Math helps us make and do cool stuff.” Hmmm. No answer. Then, “A job might require that you know math! You might be an engineer or something!”

But as John explains, out of 300 mill people in the U.S., there are 1.5 million engineers. Ninety-nine percent of us don’t need higher math. (Whether algebra can be considered “higher math” is pretty highly debated.) That didn’t work all that well either. Apparently kids know when they are being snowed.

So he “went to the dark side of the force” and used fear of tests and school advancement as his reason to learn math. But that “didn’t sit well,” so he decided to tell the truth.

“Most of you won’t need higher math.”

And the kids responded with some home truths of their own.

That’s when John started realizing just how bad his students’ experiences with math had been. The story of humiliation by a math teacher is so common that it is shocking. Let’s not underestimate how much better math education would be if we just got rid of humiliation as a teacher's little helper!

Finally, he admitted to his students that they in all likelihood will not actually need higher math in their lives...unless they go into engineering or the sciences, or just like numbers a whole lot.

What do the rest of us need? Life math: money, percentages, counting, estimating, arithmetic, decimals. Basic fractions.

How can we do better at those things without torturing kids?


Here are some ideas.

Games. Games can be awfully useful to math educators and that’s my first suggestion. Fill rooms with games that develop math skills. Remember how much I love math? I just got done with Dragon Box. All levels. It was great, it was addictive, I wish there were more levels, and does teach algebra.

Some ideas about math online games:

http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2010/01/free-math-language-arts-and-geography.html
http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2010/02/timez-attack-helps-kids-have-fun.html
http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2009/09/game-based-learning-site-for-innovative.html

There are also lots of real-life board games that build math skills -- and don’t forget the old-fashioned ones for which you have to count money.

Provide kids with a rich environment. Fill the classroom with lots of tools and supplies and let them build stuff. Let them invent, create, work, do, and manipulate. Right now, I’m taking my own advice and are going to design houses with my newly-homeschooling 12-year-old daughter. She loves designing floor plans to the New York City apartments she wants to live in. We’re going to design houses with her and build the models. Voila...math!

But this approach is even more significant than its ability to effortlessly make math interesting to kids. Tony Wagner, in his book, Creating Innovators, shows the lives of creative thinkers and analyzes their development and education. In his TED talk on play, passion and purpose, he claims, “Knowledge is a commodity. The world no longer cares about what you know. It only cares about what you can do with what you know.”

According to his website, “Wagner identifies a pattern—a childhood of creative play leads  to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion, and purpose: these are the forces that drive young innovators.”

The priorities of those of us who are concerned with our country’s ability to compete on a global stage can be seen as the same as those of us who only want kids to enjoy school more: if you want kids to really learn more math, we need them to have more fun.

Make the learning whole. I’m in the middle of a book called Making Learning Whole, by David Perkins. It’s getting a little pedagogical for my abilities so my rate of reading it has slowed, but it’s all about that baseball game metaphor that I’ve used in about 75% of the conversations I have about education (I heard the Steve Hargadon interview with Perkins nearly a year before actually buying the book). The way we teach math (and other subjects, but particularly math) is as though we’re teaching kids to hit, throw, catch and run before they’ve ever seen a game of baseball.

We have to take math out of quarantine. We have to show students the whole game. If we don’t, not only are they not interested, they hate it, and they’re justified. They’re not even learning math in a way that will be useful to them in their lives. It’s more important to know when an equation or a math skill should be applied than to be able to answer a worksheet of 100 versions of the same equation. Without showing kids the whole game, we are depriving them of math skills and making them hate it all at the same time.

There are so many ideas for rethinking math education, and they are so easily accessed and digested, that there is no excuse to continue to teach math the traditional way. Here are a few people with good ideas on recreating how we learn math in school.

Gary Stager
Conrad Wolfram
Dan Meyer’s TED talk and his blog
Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford’s article in the New York Times

Scratch the surface and you find more and more good ideas.

So why are we stuck in the old way of teaching math?

What did the man say the definition of insanity was?

 

ADDENDUM:

This just in: elementary school math scores are described as "pretty good," but as you go higher to middle and high schools, scores plummet. Why is that? Why is our early math education not creating good math thinkers later on?

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.