As I type, my darling children are using an app called Reflex Math. They are also whining. A lot. Reflex Math is designed to help them learn math facts through the 10s. First addition & subtraction, then multiplication & division. It looks like fun to me: instead of just practicing facts with flashcards, they choose games to play, earn points for playing, and “buy” things from the online store. They can check their progress to see which facts they’ve mastered and they only need to play about 10 minutes a day to progress well. So… choice? Check. Rewards? Check. Autonomy? Check.
They hate it.
Me? I’m conflicted. I hated hated hated learning my facts when I was in elementary school. I failed one timed test after another and eventually decided that I was no good at math. I was wrong, but it took me years to realize this. I do not want my kids to have the same experience. Luckily, the current curriculum in our province includes lots of deep understanding. The kids know how addition and multiplication work. They can explain, re-group, skip count – the whole nine yards. I’m really pleased about that, and I know that this is better, harder, and more important work than the memorization I did when I was young.
On the other hand, their current teachers have not emphasized actually *knowing* these facts – you know, just being able to say 6×4=24 without hesitating. And it seems to me that when push comes to shove, you need to know the answer. I used to believe that, with practice, they would just sort of pick up the facts over time. I no longer believe this: as a Special Education teacher, I do educational testing for our high school students, and I regularly see students – some of whom are taking courses as complex as Calculus – struggling to do the testing because it must be done without a calculator. It’s not just that the work is harder to complete without the technology; they often have little number sense. They quite literally cannot add and subtract. They are hamstrung in their complex thinking because they don’t know the basics. I don’t want this for my kids. So they’re memorizing – in a fun, non-judgmental way, I swear.
And yet… today, I had a conversation with my English department that was more complicated than I had anticipated. At its heart, I think the discussion was about how best we can help the students understand the complexities of literature. Is it more important to develop readers first or is our priority to teach analysis (as if this needs to be a dichotomy – sigh)? Can we trust the students to get what they need out of books that they choose? How much direction must we provide in order for them to develop complex thinking about and understanding of the written word? We found ourselves in different places along a continuum of thinking. I was very firmly in the “trust the kids; they’ll learn it (with good guidance)” camp.
On reflection, I see this discussion as the inverse mirror of my math facts concern. I’m asking my own children to memorize their math facts completely devoid of context. Apparently I think this is important. But, if pressed, I would argue something quite different about reading. I believe that my students need to *read* before they can really dig into the depths of literature. And to get them to read, I need to talk about books, provide books, value reading of all kinds, and offer lots of choice for their reading. Then, as we read, we will begin to talk figurative language and etc. (This is an oversimplification of the process, but you get the picture. Elisabeth Ellington’s post hits at some of what I mean – and she kindly sent me on to a post by Donalyn Miller which says more of what I’m talking about but much more eloquently. ) Some of my colleagues think differently: given that the students don’t read much, we must directly teach various literary devices, methods of development, etc. The paucity of the students’ reading experience means that memorization is required. Only then will they be able to understand literature. I bet they make their kids memorize math facts, too.
Hmm… the kids have long since finished their math game, but here I sit, writing, deleting, pondering, writing again. I have to stop, but I have a lot more to say about this. For now, here’s my take away: It’s easy for me to feel strongly about how to teach reading and writing – trust the kids, let them read; it’s easy enough for me to think that the old school way is, frankly, less effective. But I don’t seem to believe that about math facts, now do I? So, first, where’s the mismatch? And, second, I’d better not be too quick to judge.
Slice of Life Day 29, March 2018
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.