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Whole Math: Same Problems as Whole Language


Q. Why do we worry so much about math instruction, anyway? Aren't the "times tables" useless nowadays? Can't kids just use calculators and computers?


In the same way that Whole Language philosophies ruined the reading and writing ability of many of our students, Whole Math "progressive" concepts are ruining their mathematical ability. As with Whole Language, Whole Math techniques direct attention to the holistic understanding of the concepts, this time in math rather than in text. But the foundational skills - the basics - are ignoring in math, just as the alphabetic principles, phonics, the rules of spelling, and proper handwriting, all are ignored in the Whole Language educational philosophy. Unfortunately, both "whole" styles of instruction pervade our nation's classrooms for both reading and math . . . and it shows.


One of the worst intrusions of Whole Math is a reliance on calculators to work problems instead of expecting the student to use mental math and paper and pencil. Of course technology is good, and of course calculators and computers are a standard tool that all students should know how to use. They're fine for daily use for algebra and beyond.


But many of today's grade schools are letting small children use technology at the expense of their own brain development. Wanting to look up to date, the primary grades have tended to copy the secondary grades in math instruction. That is a mistake.


Abandonment of mental math training - no more memorizing math facts, no more oral drills, no more paper-and-pencil computation sessions - denies kids the skills they need to be really good at math.


American kids used to rule the world in both computation and problem-solving. We've lost ground in both areas, particularly in computation, in recent years. When the basics go, it doesn't take long for the higher-level thinking skills to go. Since they're the ones required for original and creative use of mathematics in science and business, that's scary for our future. We may be losing our edge.


The secret to numerical and logical success in math class and beyond is being able to do math quickly and accurately in your head. That's where "numbers sense" comes from. That's what kids need.


Good math problem-solving ability comes from tussling out a math problem by yourself. When students in the primary grades "do projects" in groups instead of spending "time on task" alone with paper and pencil, they become weak, dependent thinkers, able neither to compute confidently nor creatively solve problems.


This is why grocery store clerks can't make change: their teachers simply didn't make them do a lot of "reps," memorization, math drllls and games, flash cards and other mental math practice.


"Math by machine" can wait. Kids' minds need math first.


Homework: For a practical parent's guide to math, see How Well Does Your Child Read, Write and Do Math? by Ann Cook.


By Susan Darst Williams Math 04 2008



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