Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Computational anxiety

Today's Washington Post reports that parents are rising up like peasants with pitchforks against a new approach to math being used in elementary education across the land.

In Prince William and elsewhere in the country, a math textbook series has fomented upheaval among some parents and teachers who say its methods are convoluted and fail to help children master basic math skills and facts. Educators who favor the series say it helps young students learn math in a deeper way as they prepare for the rigors of algebra...

The program de-emphasizes memorization and drills and pushes students to use more creative ways to find answers, such as drawing pictures, playing games and using objects.

Sounds like my kid's math class, only much more structured.

On the positive side, according to the Post, the new math program raises test scores and prepares children to learn algebra later on. On the negative side -- gasp -- children do not always get the correct answer without having to think about it for awhile. The article doesn't say it, but sometimes they won't get the correct answer at all. My kid's teacher mentioned that in passing at the recent parent/teacher conference. The important thing at this stage (3rd grade), she said, is that they think.

The post gives an example: "There are 28 desks in the classroom. The teacher puts them in groups of four. How many groups of desks are in the classroom?"

I got that right away by dividing 28 by four so I can see how parents could think that it is more important for children to memorize the multiplication tables than to struggle to find their own methods for solving elementary math problems. But at what stage of development did I learn that I could use the multiplication tables to solve a problem like that?

The point is that once you have the thinking skills, the computational skills are easy. Not the other way around.

And my kid's teacher made another good point, which the Post article neglects to mention, when a parent asked her how kids are supposed to do computation if they're not drilled in it? Just like you or I or any mathematician does computation these days, she said, they'll use a calculator.


Update: On the other hand, those of you who wonder how kids who aren't taught computational skills in school still manage to succeed, I noticed my wife drilling poor little John Bob on the multiplication tables last night. Probably a lot of that going around.