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News from Mathnasium of Great Neck

Should We Stop Making Kids Memorize Times Tables?

Jun 24, 2015

Stanford University’s Jo Boaler says teachers and parents should stop using math flash cards, stop drilling kids in addition and multiplication and especially stop forcing students to do calculations quickly under time pressure.

Good-bye Mad Minute Mondays, where teachers hand out quiz sheets with 50 problems to be completed in less than a minute. But wait – doesn’t everyone have to learn times tables? No, says Boaler.

Although her position is unorthodox, Boaler, an education professor and researcher, has spent a career trying to prove why it is the best way for kids to learn.

“Drilling without understanding is harmful,” Boaler said in an interview. “I’m not saying that math facts aren’t important. I’m saying that math facts are best learned when we understand them and use them in different situations.”

In a new working paper, “Fluency Without Fear: Research Evidence on the Best Ways to Learn Math Facts,” updated and published online on Jan. 28, 2015, Boaler argues that many common math teaching tools – flash cards, math sprints and repetitive worksheets – are not only unhelpful, but also “damaging.”

And she singles out the new Common Core math curriculum in New York state, saying it misinterprets numerical “fluency” to mean rote memorization and speed.

Boaler’s argument has several parts. She explains that the key to success in math is having something called “number sense,” and number sense is developed through “rich” mathematical problems. Too much emphasis on rote memorization, she says, inhibits students’ abilities to think about numbers creatively, to build them up and break them down. 

She cites her own 2009 study, which found that low-achieving students tended to memorize methods and were unable to interact with numbers flexibly. And she is currently working on a study with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in which she is finding that the lowest performing students in the world are the ones who think math is about memorization. 

Also, Boaler argues that memorization of boring math facts, such as times tables, turns students off from math. Often, they’re high achieving students who have the kind of creative minds that would otherwise excel at it.

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