Wednesday, November 15, 2006

6 x 7 = ? 

"As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics" in the New York Times confirms my experience that memorizing basic math facts is a critical part of the elementary education every person needs.

One year, I was teaching math to all sixth graders in our school. They took a standardized test in the fall. The class average for math was the 50th percentile. Since this result was the norm for the school, everyone was satisifed, that is, everyone but me. I'd taught fifth grade the previous year and was ticked that the math score was this "low". A cursory review of the students' answers showed a high percentage of factual errors versus process (how to do) errors. I began my campaign to change the results.

I pushed basics starting with the creation of multiplication timed test of 50 facts. Students were given three minutes to complete it. If they made three or fewer errors, they got to drop to two and a half minutes. Again, if they made three or fewer errors they dropped to two minutes, and so on. There were no grades - just my positive feedback and continuing encouragement.

Because the environment was safe, the driving force became a personal challenge for each student to do better. They saw small successes and pushed themselves. Soon, they were asking, "Can we take another timed test?"

The results were close to sensational. In the spring, seven months later, our students took the same national test. Computational errors plummeted. The average math score for the sixth graders rose from the 50th percentile to the 75th percentile!

During the remaining years of my teaching career, I used timed tests. If we don't learn that 6 x 7 = 42, we can't do multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, algebra, geometry, etc. We make dumb mistakes, get frustrated and quit.

Learning math facts is like learning to read - if we don't know how to put together symbols to make words, we can't read. If we don't know how numbers work together, we can't do math. Not knowing either affects our lives whether we admit it or not.