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Kids’ Brains Reorganize When Learning Math Skills
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An Amaze-Ing Approach to Math
Spring 2005 | Education Next

Will a new study of what brains look like when kids do math finally end the math wars? Probably not, but the study’s findings do support the notion that drilling kids on math facts so that they can come up with the answers automatically will help kids with higher-level math later on.

For the study, researchers at Stanford University looked inside the brains of kids (using an MRI machine) as they solved a series of simple math problems. They found a difference between kids who solved the problems by counting and kids who were able to retrieve the answers from their memory. How well kids shift from counting to memory-based problem-solving is known to predict their ultimate math achievement, writes Lauran Neergaard.

In an article for Education Next, Barry Garelick described the early days of the math wars and the debate over drilling kids on math facts:

The math wars revolve around a four-part problem: A disputed theory of education that informs NCTM’s [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics] standards [written in 1989, since updated]; state boards of education that base their standards of learning for mathematics on the NCTM standards; textbooks written to incorporate these standards; and teachers and others in the education establishment who are indoctrinated in the disputed education theory and who may not possess enough knowledge of mathematics to overcome the first three factors.

The NCTM’s view was that traditional teaching techniques, known as “drill and kill,” numbed student minds, turned them off math, and taught them nothing. And so the new standards recommended that students learn “strategies” for learning number facts rather than memorize those facts. It emphasized the use of calculators in all grades. Most important, however, the standards recommended certain areas that should receive “decreased attention” in grades K-4, including “complex paper-and-pencil computations,” “long division,” “paper-and-pencil fraction computation,” “use of rounding to estimate,” “rote practice,” “rote memorization of rules,” and “teaching by telling.” This last item, teaching by telling, is a reference to direct instruction (telling students what they need to know), which NCTM believed should be replaced by “discovery.”

The NCTM has since updated its views somewhat on the drilling of math facts, but resistance to “drill and kill” persists.

Garelick’s article, “An Amaze-Ing Approach to Math: A mathematician with a child learns some politics,” offers a good history of the debate over math instruction.

Garelick is also the author of “Miracle Math: A successful program from Singapore tests the limits of school reform in the suburbs.”

-Education Next

Last updated August 18, 2014