Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tiger Math

As a parent and a former elementary school teacher, I cringe every time a parent tells me his or her child’s teacher “can’t teach” or “doesn’t teach right” – And when that teacher is a math teacher I drop to the floor, curl up, and squeeze my eyes shut real tight -- I wrap my arms around myself and rock myself and tell myself that everything’s going to be alright –

You see, my mother -- my Tiger Mother – “taught” me math because my American elementary teacher didn’t do math “right.” 

The “right” way to learn math was to memorize the “rules” and complete page after page of timed workbook drills. If I failed, I stood in the corner of the dining room, faced the wall, and recited the times tables from zero to 12 until I was asked to stop (and not before). 

I spent hours quietly tracing the faint lines and mottled designs in the wood paneling on our dining room wall. Sometimes I’d imagine microscopic race cars speeding around and around the wavy tracks. Sometimes it would be a train – a steam engine – chugging along a dangerous mountain passage with its treacherous curves.

Now, mid way through my 40s, I still stumble on my times tables and I need a pad and pencil to write the numbers down -- so you see why I get a little twitchy whenever a parent tells me his or her child’s math teacher isn’t teaching math “right.”

BUT I’m an adult.

And as an adult, I’ve come to accept math as a necessary evil like heavy drinking at the end of a particularly hard day. I have a truce with math. It accepts that I will always stumble when it comes to doing even the simplest bit of arithmetic in my head and I accept that I will need to do simple bits of arithmetic in my head when I count out scoops of coffee or measure cups of rice to water or figure out the appropriate tip after dinner out.

As a parent and an educator -- a former elementary school teacher, now a curriculum developer – I want more from math for my children. I want them to LOVE math (not just tolerate it like I do). I want them to see as much value in the challenge of solving a particularly complex equation as they do getting to the next level on a videogame. I don’t need them to become mathematicians or engineers but I would like them to have the same enthusiasm for puzzles and disciplined approaches to solutions.

Currently,I am familiar with three classroom math curricula: TERC, Everyday Math, and Singapore Math. The former is well intentioned but often too repetitive and laborious. The latter is my favorite because it acknowledges the need for memorization, appeals to the visual learner, and incorporates Language Arts in its answers. The challenge to the latter is helping students like myself build rote memorization skills.

Unfortunately, I don’t think too highly of the middle. I want to believe it is well intended but where TERC does not provide enough direction, Everyday Math is overly prescriptive. Students spend a lot of time doing math but very little time thinking about it. Their so-called Journal is a repackaging of the traditional workbook instead of a place for students to write about math and construct a deeper understanding of it.

BUT as a result of its over-prescription, Everyday Math is able to offer a well organized site for parents that is correlated to the its classroom textbooks. This is an accessible and easy to use resource for parents wishing to work collaboratively with their children’s teacher to support math learning outside of the classroom. Neither TERC or Singapore Math provide this level of teacher-parent collaboration.

I like Singapore Math because,  based on the way it was presented to me several years ago at a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference, students are allowed to draw out a problem. They are literally able to draw pictures to represent the information given within a word problem. Also, a solution is not complete until they write out their answer in a full sentence (meaning the answer to a word problem is not just a digit like “4” but a written statement like “There were 4...”)

And while I like the drawing and solutions written out in a proper sentences, I am burdened by the painful truth that the success of Singapore Math relies on its expectation that students will memorize and quickly access core math facts like multiplication tables.

I draw a distinction here between the teaching multiplication tables and the automatic recall of them. Stumbling on the later does not mean failure of the former. Stumbling on recall might mean devoting attention to teaching and modeling methods of memorization instead of additional teaching of the content itself.

I am a fan of musical mnemonic strategies. Schoolhouse Rock taught me English and Math (as well as American History and Science) --

I should clarify – School taught me English and Math and American History and Science but it was Schoolhouse Rock that helped me remember what I was told. 

There are several “Tiger Endangering” mnemonic methods in addition to song. Another favorite is having students create their own flash cards or better yet they create their own matching games where the equation must be matched with the solution.

For example, making the set from index cards and markers, one card might have “4x4” on it and another “16.” With all the cards face down, the goal would be to match “4x4” to “16.” Students would play the same way they would play a store bought matching game with pictures. The exercise builds memory skills and creates associations between equations and solutions.

The Math Department at Kutztown University has posted some familiar math rhymes and anagrams to help students remember their math facts – Including the lyrics to the Schoolhouse Rock “Multiplication Rock” songs. The Mathematics Learning blog has a post on “math mnemonics” that includes an informative comment thread. And the Math Forum @Drexel provides a list of suggested mnemonic techniques from teachers around the world.

I am pleased to say that none of the materials I came across suggested standing in a corner for hours, repeating the times tables.


The YouTube clips at the top are from Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid Too. It and the movie that came before it, I Not Stupid, deeply impacted my parenting. Schoolhouse Rock’s My Hero, Zero seemed appropriate for a surviving victim of Tiger Math.

Originally, posted at


G said...

Nice post! As an elementary school teacher too, I think the way math gets taught needs work. Kids need both strong understanding of the ideas / concepts behind math along with the raw computational skills that come from memorization.

From my experience, drills / memorization is something most kids can practice at home and on their own, and families are comfortable with it. And some families just LOVE having their kids study / do worksheets / flashcards... I recommend daily practice, but nothing excessive like hours and hours. It can really make kids hate math...

As for getting kids to grasp the concepts of math, to have experiences and see the broader applications - I kinda figure that's my job as a teacher, whether it's using math skills in an art project (recently did a fun "pixel art" project with my class to talk about area and perimeter) to applying the math skills to science (estimation graphing, etc.).

Vincent Young said...

Hi G,

Thank you for your comment. What are your thoughts on the role of parents. How much of the challenge is parents (well intentioned as they may be) wanting to see math the way they were taught it? In the days before "brain theory" or full acceptance of "multiple intelligences"?

Joseph S.Fine said...
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