Responding to @alicekeeler’s article on memorizing math facts & @joboaler’s book #mathchat

Alice Keeler’s post really spoke to me. I’m not a fan of memorizing *anything* in math. I know not everyone agrees with me on this one, but this is how I feel. I never could memorize anything. I still can’t. Like Alice Keeler, I was terrible at timed math assessments in elementary school. It caused me major stress and made me question my math ability. My mom did math with me – after working all day, she taught at Montgomery College in the evenings when I was growing up (she’s superwoman, I don’t know how she did it!). In 5th grade, she was teaching Algebra 2 with Trig, and she took me to the course with her. I did the whole thing, along with all the assessments, and totally rocked the class. This was eye-opening for me. In elementary school, I never felt that I shined in math. I was slow and we constantly had timed tests or had to do flashcard tests of math facts. So when I did my mom’s course and found it easy, it was huge for me and probably changed a lot for my future. After that, I got into the magnet program for Middle School and High School. Math was totally my thing, but the way math was taught in Elementary School didn’t really allow me to see this. I was lucky to have amazing Middle School and High School math teachers, but I know a lot of MS and HS math still is taught with far too much memorization. I know it because I see it constantly in teaching now. Kids memorize how to do math problems and then misapply/forget those rules. If they just learned the correct understanding in the first place, we would avoid so many of these “bad habits” that kids learn. But understandings take much longer to develop than memorizing and also a really strong presentation of the material by the teacher. So it’s a difficult one to tackle. I’m glad we are having more conversations about these important topics. Thanks, Alice, for the wonderful post!
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One thought on “Responding to @alicekeeler’s article on memorizing math facts & @joboaler’s book #mathchat

  1. Alice & Stacey, I agree with you. As a chemistry and environmental science teacher, I fight the good fight to restore student’s confidence in science by helping them build up their math confidence. In my own experience throughout high school, I felt dumb in math. It was not until I took calculus in college that the lightbulb of free thinking turned on for me. I am sure most of my elementary through high school math teachers would be shocked to know that I was in the honors math program in college. I have been working to help students realize their math potential through science – I just wish that I could prevent the situation in the first place. In science class, we derive the formulas so students see the relationships and trends in the data.

    On one point, I do feel that memorizing math facts in elementary school can help build an intimacy with numbers – I just wish we could see more differentiated instruction. Some students respond well to competition and pressure situations; however, some students think they are a failure if they can not get the prescribed number of problems correct in a certain time. In horror, I watched my own daughter (who has decent math reasoning skills for a second grader and is the most competitive second grader I have known) freeze up and spiral into a panic attack when playing “race the teacher” on a popular math tech website. She was frozen by the time and could not even add 6+7. In my head, I screamed at myself….I know better than to do this to my child!

    It would be helpful if students learned just a few things well in elementary school and stopped pushing students who are not developmentally ready for abstract math thinking. Just my thinking….

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