I have been teaching math for many years now and have taken more college math courses than I can count on my hands and toes! I remember being in the 3rd grade and winning the times tables game every time as we raced around the room. I have never struggled with fractions and computing arithmetic, nor needed to rely on my fingers to figure out problems. Is this because I have a “math gene” or I am a math whiz or some genius? The answer is no! So, why am I “good” at math and why have I always been this way? The answer is simple and I try to teach my students this continuously.
Think of math as a never ending gigantic cake with an infinite amount of layers, where each layer is necessary and preparatory for the next one. Each layer represents a skill that must be mastered before adding a new layer. So, in terms of the cake, I have mastered each layer! Well, how does one master each layer? I answer this question frequently…three most important things…I look for patterns, make connections, and I practice. Many students think that doing a few problems or watching the teacher do problems is sufficient. To this I say, NO, NO, NO! It is in the doing of the mathematics where the learning takes place.
So, what about all this talk about getting kids away from learning basic math facts, like times tables? The argument is that with computers and calculators, the need for higher level thinking is more important than just producing an answer. While I believe there is truth to this and could write a quite a bit in agreement with that statement alone, I certainly do not want to discount the importance of teaching youngsters to compute! There is evidence that suggests that students are not learning how to compute. I see it daily in my student interactions. Research suggests that youngsters who have not mastered whole-number arithmetic by the end of the fourth grade are at risk for becoming remedial math students.
I completely contribute my mathematical success to having a solid foundation with basic skills. Arithmetic is the starting point in mathematics and basic skills are necessary to advance in mathematics, which includes critical thinking, problem solving, and communication of mathematics…All things computers cannot necessarily do! Without a foundation of arithmetic and basic skills, students will not be prepared to progress to algebra in middle school, middle schoolers will not be prepared for advanced mathematics in high school and our high schoolers will go off to college ill-prepared to be successful in mathematics and in the workforce.
In my opinion and from all my experience and training, the better a child learns all the basics and recognizes patterns and makes connections, the better prepared the child will be for the next layer, and so. Every layer in mathematics is important. It is all part of one great whole!