Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why not math?

Data children willingly commit to memory:

1. the stats of their favorite player or team
2. text and instant message “lingo” (ttyl, g/g, btw, y?)
3. vocabulary and spelling words
4. random factoids about Star Wars (All 6 episodes)
5. Pokemon characters and their powers (there are 500 of them)
6. capitals of the 50 states
7. favorite cable channels
8. sheet music and fingering positions for the piece they are rehearsing
9. endless moves and codes for their favorite video game
10. the alphabet

I think children are good at memorizing things. Many even like to memorize random data just for fun and find it cool to show off what they know.

Most children are born with the capability for memory and some aptitude to remember, but using memory is a learned skill and, to some extent, it’s use it or lose it. The key to improving a child’s memory is to exercise those memory skills. By reading, sorting, categorizing and memorizing, children are actually developing some higher-level thinking skills. Yes, those same higher-level thinking skills that everyone keeps talking about.

We need to embrace and develop this natural interest in memorizing data, not discourage it or eliminate it altogether for fear of being "abusive". Death by drill. It just doesn't happen that way, folks.

Memorization is a good thing, a really useful and wonderful thing. In fact, I would argue that memorizing math facts is even more important than baseball stats, Star Wars or Pokemon.

If children can memorize that type of "data", why not math?


Parentalcation said...

Our school did something very cool. They bought a pack of math flash cards for every single 3rd grade student. We used them everyday and made up our own games with them.

After they memorized all their math facts we would show them the answer side and have them list all the factors.

concernedCTparent said...

Are the kids traumatized by the experience? I don't think so. It got their neurons moving and that memory muscle exercised. I'm sure they thought it was fun too. Kids love a challenge and their ability to memorize things is truly amazing.

Independent George said...

And Stratego. Don't forget Stratego.

Professor Homunculus said...

Yes and no. Memorization is too fuzzy a term. It is almost criminal that we keep telling kids to memorize, and we never teach them how. There is an art to memory, which every educated person hundreds of years ago knew. Now we just use it as word.

If you do not have specific techniques that you have taught your students, it is pretty inconsiderate to ask them to memorize, and then grade them on how they did. There are terrific mnemonic techniques, (and none of them involve "The Multiplication Rap").

The entire "Math Wars" issue is being waged by two sides that have not successfully taught math with a huge hit-rate for success with their students. Why? No one cares about the kids. They care about their theories. They care about saying they care about the kids.

Unless you are turning kids on to real math, seeing lightbulbs going on left and right as you teach, having dozens of kids a day saying, "Wow, why didn't they teach us this way before?", then you haven't taught math.

Flash cards are great. Wait, no, they just suck a bit less than staring at tables, so we think they are great.

Crikey, math is really such a great world of romance and adventure, so why do we have to turn it into vacuous "touchy-feely" excercises in alternative education, or "just shut up and memorize it" tyranny?

OK, I ranted like crazy. There's some more at


Professor Homunculus

concernedCTparent said...

Crikey, math is really such a great world of romance and adventure, so why do we have to turn it into vacuous "touchy-feely" excercises in alternative education, or "just shut up and memorize it" tyranny?"

We don't. The "math war" is exactly that... a war... and nobody wins a war. There are always casualties.

And as for not caring about the kids... as a parent I only care about my kids. But I know them better than a publisher, and administrator or even a teacher.

It's not about being right, it's about doing the right thing.

We don't need to lock kids in a room, feed them bread and water, and only release them when they've memorized the tables 1-12. We also don't need to cluster them in groups with no guidance and let them feel their way through an algebra problem.

My biggest problem with "reform" math is that it's really not progressive at all. We're going on two decades of the stuff and it's only getting worse. Are we big enough to admit that maybe some other countries are doing something right and we have something to learn from them? Are we not adult enough to admit that there may be something to be said about a classical math education that may be enhanced and invigorated by new advances in technology.... think HeyMath, for example.

Has history taught us nothing? Extremes in all things are dangerous. But when we put children in the middle of these extremes it's almost criminal.

concernedCTparent said...

BTW Prof Homunculus
Love the no-holds-barred tone of The Math Mojo. You certainly have a way with words. Mostly I love that you get it... it's about the kids. Period.