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.