Monday, October 13, 2014

Why the Angst about Rote? (Dear Katie V3 #6)

Dear Katie,

I am going to conclude my series of notes about rote memorization with the reason for my angst (Google This! and The Rote Strawman). It actually is not due to any pressure being placed upon me in my classroom.  It is due to the way that worksheets are instructing your 1st grade cousin to learn math.

When I was young, we had to fill out worksheets that had simple math equations, 1+1=?, 1+2=?, 1+3=?, over and over again until the answers became automatic.  We may not have understood what it meant when we learned it, but as time went on, and we developed intellectually, we understood the answers we memorized.  We understood when we should add or multiply as our intellect grew.  We used flash cards to memorize our addition and subtraction.  We filled out multiplication tables, over and over again, until 5*8 was automatically 40 in our minds.

Today, this is referred to derisively as Drill and Kill.

In today's world of let's push kids into upper level math before they are ready (or into math courses most will never use outside of school, how is that authentic?), your cousin, a beginning reader, is asked to read a word problem.

Here is a basic one.  Some have instructions that your aunt and I struggled to understand.

"Johnny has 8 goldfish, he flushes 3 down the toilet because they died, how many goldfish does he have left." (OK, that is not the actual problem, but you get the point).

In a box next to the word problem, your cousin draws 8 fish, crosses out 3, and has 5 left.

In the blank lines she writes 8 then writes down 3 next to the minus sign and writes down the number 5 as the answer because that's how many fishes have not been crossed out.

I ask her without her looking on the paper, "What is 8-3?"

Her answer "I don't know" (even though she just "completed" the problem).

The math problem did not help her learn 8-3=5 
nor did it help her understand the process.

It reinforced something she has known how to do since she was 3.  COUNT!

She counted to 8 as she drew the 8 fish.  She counted to 3 when she placed X's on the 3 fish that were flushed down the toilet, and then she counted the number of fish that did not have X's, which was 5.

And when your aunt and I ask her a math problem, instead of spitting out the question, we watch her counting on her fingers (and I have seen middle school kids doing the same thing also).

And why can she count?  Because you aunt counted with her over and over again as a child to 20, her preschool teacher counted with her over and over again until 20, and then her kindergarten teacher had her write over and over again up to 100.  What's that called?

Rote Memorization

And why can she even complete those problems, because she learned to count  BY ROTE.

Your cousin is not a genius, but she doesn't struggle academically either.  We are told she is a good reader for her age, and enjoys learning.  Yet, math frustrates her.  I have witnessed her cry over it.

Your aunt was told by a friend that her daughter who is the same age was frustrated also by math, so she put her into Kumon and she is now successful.  And what does Kumon do that the schools don't?

"Drill and Kill" math facts.

I won't pay someone else to do what the school should be doing.  Guess I'll be printing out "drill and kill" math facts sheets. 

Uncle Kevin

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