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The World Has Changed—Why Hasn’t Math Education?

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September 19, 2017

This year in school, my son will have timed multiplication tests. They won’t be a problem for him, but not for the reasons you might think. While he’s never bothered to memorize the times tables, he can calculate the answer to the questions fast enough to stay with the rest of the class. Years of teaching and instinct told me that this was fine, but I started to worry because I know that academic demands are going to get more intense in the higher grades. I dug into the research on math facts and memorization and found a fabulous site,, from a center at Stanford University. They focus on bringing research-based practices to teachers and families. After reading through the articles and watching videos they offer, I arrived at three conclusions.

1. Math is a whole lot more than memorization

Students from the United States routinely score very low on world math tests. Research shows that American students rely on memorization and procedure to solve difficult problems, when many other countries use “number sense,” which is a deeper understanding of numbers and how they relate.

2. Our brains can do a lot more than we ask of it 

Research found that students using number sense instead of memorization to solve problems use multiple pathways that cross many regions of the brain. This allows the students to connect previous knowledge and current information to find a route to a solution. Visual learning is key to number-sense math. As much as possible, we should present math concepts visually, employing manipulatives, drawing pictures, or even letting kids use their fingers. One thing to note: when asking our brains to take new pathways, it will take longer. Speed isn’t necessary or beneficial when learning new concepts.

3. Education needs to change

Times have changed and the way we teach needs to change, too. We need to get away from lists of math problems and speed tests. Math should look more like real life. In the real world, math isn’t rows of number problems. Rather, we use math in situations that require analysis and working to a solution. The growth mindset, when wrong answers are considered an important part of the learning process, should be integral to this mental shift so students can get used to trying multiple methods of discovery.

I highly recommend that you check out and reassess your own assumptions about math education. It may be hard to let go of pencil and paper and speed multiplication tests, but it’s the best thing we can do for our children.

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