News 360 published an article on January 30th by Clifton Parker titled, “Students most effective working on math problems they enjoy, not drills or exercises.” Again I am not shocked. I would assume that in any situation we prefer to work on something we enjoy instead of something mundane.
However the article cited the research of Stanford mathematics education professor, Jo Boaler, who explained that in the past we have equated fast mathematicians with strong and fluent mathematicians. But this is not always the case.
While knowing math facts is important, research shows that the best way to acquire these facts is by using them, not by rote memory. Often it is assumed that good math students have done a better job at memorizing math facts, while research shows that the best students often work from a foundation of number sense, not from application of rote memory.
On the other hand, number sense can be developed through well-planned techniques such as math talks, creative problem solving, multiple solution strategies, and multiple representations. Brain research shows that asking students to represent concepts visually and symbolically deepens understanding and fosters memory.
Fortunately the Common Core State Standards for Math represent a major step in that direction. Rote memory as an isolated approach is de-emphasized while conceptual learning is developed across the grade levels. As educators, it is up to us to implement the CCSS-math effectively, rigorously, and to explain their value to those who might not understand the rationale behind this approach.
The student who never learned his multiplication facts never failed to be able to find ways to solve problems in my class and explain his reasoning to others. Instead of being a disability, his struggle with rote memory probably forced him to understand numbers instead and left him better off for it.
For a more detailed description of the techniques that foster number sense, I offer a handout titled, “Developing Number Sense.”