The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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Day: September 1, 2011

Improve math education with rote learning?

Priyamvada Natarajan has written an article on the Huffingtonpost about how she thinks we should improve math education. She says:

We are failing to teach our children the fundamentals of mathematics and quantitative reasoning skills. These skills form the foundation upon which future technical education is based. Children do not attain adequate proficiency, develop math phobia and as a result we lose a vast talent pool of potential engineers and scientists. Most of the high-paying jobs of the future will require mathematical fluency — a skill that most American students leaving school do not come close to possessing.

Finally, it’s time to return to old-fashioned rote learning. My work now involves complicated and abstract math, but I started where everyone can: with the multiplication tables. Here are two truths: 7 x 5 = 35 and developing dexterity with mental arithmetic leads to comfort with quantitative reasoning.

I responded:

As an alternative to this article, see:

The issue, in my opinion, is not that students are not learning computations, it’s that they are rarely learning these computations in useful contexts. The "fake" textbook word problems that are presented to students are an attempt to develop some sense of context for students, but most of these fail to address the cultural and socio-economic differences in students.

Keith Devlin talks about this issue in his book, "The Math Instinct", which I consider to be part of the required reading for all who are interested in math education reform. Further, I would add "A Mathematician’s Lament" by Paul Lockhart and " The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure of Math Education Rest" by Matthew A. Brenner (see

Another useful video to watch  (created by Gord Hamilton of has another perspective on this issue. Watch it here:

As for the utility of the Khan Academy videos, see Derek Muller’s video where he demolishes the notion that kids learn effectively from standard video lectures:

The issue in math education is complicated. You can’t just say, "increase rote memorization and everything will be better" because the world has changed since that was necessary. We don’t live in a world where memorizing everything (note: memorizing some things is still useful) is necessary. We don’t need to carry rote memorization in our heads as much, so long as we understand how and why we can access the information.


Another issue (which I did not include because I ran out of words) is that people, who are well-meaning but not knowledgeable on the issue of math education, keep suggesting rote learning as an alternative to our current system. "More of the same" is not a solution to the problem. I’m fine with people presenting alternatives to our current system, but if you are going to post in a high profile location, I strongly recommend you do your research first…

Standardization is impossible

Stop light
(Image credit: photoburst)


Stop lights are a rule. They are a standard system used worldwide as a solution to the problem of people getting into accidents at intersections.

However, what most people don’t know (unless you have travelled a lot, or lived abroad) is that different cultures treat stop lights differently, particularly for pedestrians. In New York City, the red light means "walk across unless someone is driving through right now" on a cross town street, and "don’t walk" on a uptown/downtown street. In Vancouver, the red light means "be careful crossing the street" if it is a quiet street, and "don’t cross" (unless you are a rebel) for a busy street. In London, a red light means "stay the hell away from the road" because cars will run you down if you try and cross, but a crosswalk means, "expect traffic to slam on their brakes to let you cross". In Bangkok, you don’t cross at intersections, you use the overhead walkways. In Hamburg, the red light means, do not cross under any circumstances, even if you can’t see traffic in either direction for miles. In Rio de Janeiro, at night time, the red light means, honk and drive on through, as no one wants to stop in case they are carjacked (anyone who walks around Rio at night time is crazy).

The point is, this seemingly universal symbol still has a local meaning, even though effort has been made to adopt the same system all over the world. Rules are culturally situated.

Our society’s push to standardize education needs to recognize that even in a standardized system, there will be local variance. Schools, just like municipalities adopting traffic lights, need to work the external system into their local framework, and the expectation that every school should come up with the same solution is flawed. In fact, some schools may have very different approaches to applying the standardized framework to their local community.

Some municipalities have nearly abandoned the traffic light as a form of managing traffic at intersections. 

Round about


What is the parallel to the round-about in education? Is this completely different than standardization? Should our system have the flexibility to allow more schools to choose different solutions to education?