The Springfield News Leader paper  published a Missouri math educator’s opinion on how to teach math in K-12 classrooms. Larry Campbell posed the question: “Do we really want, for example, to spend much — if any — time anymore on learning times-tables and other purely arithmetic procedures? When was the last time those were used in the workplace, especially where time is money?”  Instead he proposed we up the use of the calculator. Apparently he is not aware of how that same recommendation by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics led to a steady decline in student test scores on standardized mathematics exams.

Dr. Mary Byrne wrote a response to Mr. Campbell’s opinion piece and her response was published in the News-Leader on Wednesday.

We’re suffering from lack of fluency in basic math

(Reprinted below with permission from M. Byrne)

We’re suffering from lack of fluency in basic math

Mary Byrne, Ed.D.

The case of mistaken identity with math isn’t between arithmetic and mathematics, it’s between math educators and professionals who actually use mathematics in the world outside of the K-12 classroom. In a previously published Local Voice, Dr. Campbell asks, “Do we really want to spend time anymore on learning times-tables and other purely arithmetic procedures? When was the last time those were used in the workplace, especially where time is money?”

Apparently, Dr. Campbell hasn’t observed the inability of young cashiers who can’t calculate change in real time when the computerized cash register becomes useless during a power outage. Or perhaps he’s never waited for a job candidate who showed up late to an appointment because the candidate’s phone calculator couldn’t identify the correct time for setting the alarm. But inconvenience in the workplace isn’t the worst of what 21st-century thinking has brought America’s developing children. Serious problems include:

Lost opportunity for optimal brain development and logical problem solving. Humans are not born with the ability to solve problems. Brain imaging research on young children indicates that learning arithmetic changes the human brain in a way has a positive effect on solving problems by looking for logical solutions. The human brain needs to be conditioned by the raw sensation of basic computation so that later, children can derive understanding and solve more complex problems.

Poor foundation for higher order mathematics. A lack of fluency in basic math fact recall significantly hinders a child’s subsequent progress with algebra and higher-order math concepts. It’s very difficult to get to graduate-level mathematics if you can’t hack calculus because you couldn’t hack algebra because you couldn’t hack middle-school math because you couldn’t hack arithmetic.

Increased math anxiety and confusion. Just as letters are components of words and words are components of sentences, arithmetic facts are the foundation blocks for learning the next level of math. Math anxiety starts when children fall behind in learning the basic building blocks of arithmetic and can’t keep up.

Skills such as adding and subtracting larger numbers, telling time, counting money, measurement, long multiplication and division are just a few of the concepts that a child will encounter fairly early in her math career. If she has mastered her arithmetic, these concepts will be significantly easier and she will be better equipped to solve them more quickly. If she is spending a lot of time doing the basic facts, she is more likely to be confused with the process and get lost in her calculations.

Educators’ emphasis on 21st-century learning combined with common core aligned high school math and science curricula are a scandal and leave our children unprepared for independent thinking and our state without the technical expertise it needs at the post-high school and college level. We need engineers, scientists and mathematicians to design and evaluate our state’s arithmetic to mathematics course sequence; not math educators who extol the virtues of calculators at the expense of our children’s neurologic, academic and emotional development.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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