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On learning and remembering

Neither of my kids learned their multiplication facts on schedule. The way the public school standards tell it, kids are just supposed to do it in third grade. You know, the way they’re supposed to walk on schedule, talk on schedule, and read on schedule. My kids have been equally as dismal at being “normal” in all those categories!

Schools assume that you learn things in order, and all their materials are based on that assumption. And even materials that are not created for public schools tend to follow the same assumptions.

The thing is, kids don’t learn things in a standard order. In fact, it’s often the kids who are eventually going to become masters in a subject who seem to lag behind. There are numerous tales of mathematicians who couldn’t add their way out of a paper bag. (“Let’s see, one paper bag plus one mathematician… Oh, geez, I really should have memorized that one before I got stuck in this bag!’) It’s heartening to know this, but when you’re in the thick of it, having a math-smart kid who can’t remember 7×8 — much less 5×6 — is hard to deal with.

A recent e-mail list discussion I was in on tackled this subject. Here is some of the wisdom I gained.

First of all, question why your child has to memorize math facts, and if it’s in his/her best interest to force it right now:

  • Does your child need to learn them because she’s in school and her teacher is pressuring her?
  • Does your child need to learn them because not knowing them is holding him back from doing math he enjoys?
  • Does your child need to learn them for reasons of self-esteem? (Kids who can’t seem to memorize random bits of information are often at a disadvantage in our schools.)

Secondly, be aware that there is absolutely no correlation with ability to memorize and overall intelligence. They are separate traits with nothing bit a tangential relationship.

  • A fairly large amount of successful people have trouble with rote memorization. That’s why they went into professions where rote memorization was not necessary for success.
  • Our schools operate on the assumption that certain types of learners should be rewarded, while all others should be punished into becoming the “right” kind of learner. But if your kid has trouble with rote memorization, there is no research that indicates that this will ever change, no matter what consequences she faces.
  • The “visual spatial” learning style is particularly noted for producing kids who have trouble with math facts. Visual spatial learners are very likely to have trouble in school, except in art class, shop, geometry, and other disciplines where their skills shine through. [Learn more about VS learners here.]

If there is a good reason that your child has to learn math facts, try a variety of methods in order to determine the one that “speaks” to your child’s way of thinking. Methods include:

  • Visual representation with blocks, pictures, or manipulatives. Make sure that your child really gets that when you say “2 times 4” you really mean take 2 of something and count it  4 times.
  • Different aural approaches like singing (lots of kids like Multiplication Rock or the silly rhyming method which I can’t seem to find a reference to but will at some point!)
  • The analytic approach: Show your child how you can fill in almost all of a multiplication table just by using the facts she already knows. Talk about how to quickly come up with math facts that he can’t remember off the top of his head.
  • The project-based approach: Take math facts as the starting point to do the sort of project your child likes. Incorporate math facts as part of the project. One of my daughter’s teachers, for example, had kids build “factories” out of recycled containers that spit out math facts on slips of paper.
  • The carrot-and-stick approach: You don’t necessarily have to pay, but find a way to reward each math fact earned. It could be as simple as the method we’re doing right now, where the math facts she doesn’t know are stuck on the walls of our breakfast room. Each day, if she can tell us the answer to one without hesitation, she gets to take it off the wall.
  • Association: This is the most tried and true method of memorization, but it’s hard for a lot of people to do with numbers. The basic principle is this: Find something to associate with each number, and practice the association so that it’s grouped with the number in your head. People who see numbers as colors or smells do this instinctively, but it is possible to create these associations on purpose.
  • Games: Any game that requires math will help. A good one I got recently is Muggins, which is quite fun.
  • If your kid loves computer games, find games like Timez Attack and let them play.

The main thing to remember about memorization is that the harder you force, the harder the brain fights back. Kids’ brains learn best through play — when it becomes work, it’s time to take a break. Sometimes that break can stretch out for a long time…much longer than the school standards might want to admit. But if the eventual goal is a happy, well-educated child, the standards just sometimes have to wait.


Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

5 Responses

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  1. shelli says

    I really, really appreciate this post right now. I’ve been doing some math with my five-year-old, and it’s pretty clear that memorizing 1+1 is not his strength right now. I’m not pushing it at all, but I’ve been wanting to read about different approaches to math. Since it was a very difficult subject for me – I am not good at memorization or math – I will not be surprised if it’s difficult for my son. He seems to be an auditory/visual learner. I found some math songs, and he likes to listen to them sometimes, so we’ll see if that helps!

  2. Suki says

    You’re lucky that you’re starting from 5 years old so you can make sure not to make the mistakes that lead kids to believe they’re “not good at math.” If you always approach math as something fun to do together, he’ll be more relaxed. The tool I love most for my daughter is something I don’t even know the name of. It’s a board with plastic keys with all the 1-10 multiplication facts on each key. But you can’t see the answer unless you press the key down, and the answer appears through the plastic. Very low-tech, but it offers the message that math facts are NOT mysterious. They are simply things that everyone eventually gets a handle on, and if not, there’s always a tool available when you forget. Good luck!

  3. Diane says

    Hop Scotch Skip Counting and Math-U-See:

    I have children that have picked up the math facts practically on their own and for others it did not come naturally. One light bulb moment for my daughter was to make skip counting “hop-scotch” for her. She is a visual/artsy person like me versus analytical like my husband. She is also extremely auditory. I made the answers large, each on a 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. (i.e.- 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24) She then wrote at the bottom the corresponding fact in smaller type. (1×2) We also cut them into fun shapes such as lily pads and then laminated them. We then used blue painters tape to stick them to the floor in a fun swirly path. As she proceeded to jump from lily pad to lily pad, skip counting as she went, she was actually having fun, smiling and laughing. We started with her singing/skip counting along with the Math-U-See CD, then on her own without it. For her it made sense and was fun. From there going on to paper and onto the facts was no big deal.

    The Math-U-See program is hands-on with blocks and other manipulatives, visual, auditory and really explains the “why” behind the math. My children love it, whether fast or slow in math and even my child with disabilities. They don’t think about/promote being on target for the grade level, but mastery and understanding. Adding the hop-scotch along with their CD made it all work for her. We have been doing this K-high school and love it!

  4. Suki says

    I love the hopscotch idea! My daughter is having trouble with the higher 7’s and 8’s, so we could make a hopscotch where we just do those numbers. I tried a sing-a-long approach, and it was a terrible disaster. “Why would I want to sing this stupid, repetitive song when there are so much better songs out there?” Definitely, having a few different approaches is a great idea so you don’t just have one which will very soon become a chore!

  5. Parmalee says

    How about “rock” or “rap”?

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