My Second Grader Is Better at Math Than Me

Sheri Reed

math chalkboard studentI've never been very proud of my mathematical skills. I mean, I'm not awful at math, but I surely don't trust my knowledge even for figuring the simplest of addition problems. If you were sitting next to me asking me to add a couple of numbers together, you would most likely see my hand slip under the table so I could count it out on my fingers. If you asked me via email, I would just whip out a pen and paper or more likely punch the problem into the calculator.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given my less-than-glorious math skills, that my son's arithmetic abilities have quickly surpassed my own. Of course, I didn't think it would happen as soon as second grade!

I may or may not have been taught to do math using my fingers (who can remember?), but it's definitely the only way I ever learned to make math work. Now I just have my 8-year-old son add things up for me -- in his head! It totally freaks me out. What the hell is going on? How the heck does he do that so effortlessly?

Well, parents, breathe easy. Your child isn't necessarily a genius destined for an Einstein-like existence. They really are teaching math in a new way.

On NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, math guy Keith Devlin explains they're teaching math concepts these days in a way that better reflects the needs of society. We use computers for most everything now, and we count on spreadsheets to do our calculations, but ... Devlin says:

You have to write the macro ... What that's known as is algebraic thinking. And the emphasis now in mathematics teaching is on getting people to be sophisticated algebraic thinkers. You cannot become good at algebra without a mastery of arithmetic ... but arithmetic itself is no longer the ultimate goal.

Huh, I find this so fascinating -- and I'm so excited that my kids are privy to this much cooler way of learning. Personally, I don't remember learning my multiplication tables until 5th or 6th grade, but my second grader is already doing multiplication. No, he isn't simply memorizing each table and seeing if he can write it all out in under a minute like we did in elementary school. He actually figures out a multiplication problem standing right in front of me -- no fingers, no calculators. It seriously floors me when he does this.

So are multiplication tables off the curriculum now? Not so, says Devlin:

... the way it's taught now is you get to the multiplication tables by understanding the number system and understanding what numbers mean.

You actually do have to sit down and learn the multiplication tables. There's no alternative to learning them. From what we know about the way the brain works, we have a strong reason to believe that the only way to actually master the multiplication tables is to learn them linguistically almost like the chanting that you and I probably had to do. But if all you do is master them as a chant, you'll never be able to learn sophisticated uses of numbers.

Wow, that's incredible. And gosh, well, that makes me feel so much better about my dismal math abilities. Sort of.

What about you? Have your noticed your kids surpassing you in math?


Image via { pranav }/Flickr

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