It's Elementary!

by Jamie Forrest

What gets my goat… October 13, 2010

Filed under: Class reflections,eci831,Opinion pieces — Jamie @ 12:41 pm

We had a chance to listen to what I can only describe as a rockstar teacher last night in class.  If I could accomplish only one of the projects this year with my students that Zoe Branigan-Pipe did with hers, I would be happy.

However, something she said really upset me.  It is not something I haven’t heard before and if you follow Twitter as I do, you will probably read this sentiment at least once a day.  She said “If you can find the answers online, it is not a good test.”  If I heard this as a high school or middle years teacher, I would probably agree.  However I don’t teach at these levels and I don’t fully agree.

I agree with the sentiment that in this day and age, to be successful, adults need to be able to problem solve, to be given a set of circumstances and to be able to work through them.  They need to “think outside the (computer) box,” as it were.  I think that even in primary education, we need to start supporting, encouraging, and framing learning experiences (inquiry) where the children get the chance to try this kind of thinking in a safe environment.

However, in primary, I still believe that a lot of memorization (oh, the horror!) of some basic skills is essential.  Knowing letter-sound combinations is essential.  Knowing basic math facts is essential.  Knowing the name of their city, province and country, and how to spell them is essential.   These are all things you can look up on the computer and all things my students get tested on.

What differs from the time in the classroom when memorization was king is the way that we teach, students learn, and even the way we test.  We play games, we talk, we share, we practice (although no longer with repetitive worksheets), but in the end, we still memorize.  We need to.

Agree or disagree?


15 Responses to “What gets my goat…”

  1. D Hill Says:

    Agree. We recently had a coffee discussion after a good number of our teachers attended an Inquiry in-service. The multiplication table was used as the example. Do kids need to know it?
    Should they memorize it? Should they be taught to find all math answers on calculators or computers? Our final conclusion was, as you say, certain base skills students need to mastered. This flies in the face of methods like Inquiry. Methods must be selected according to the best way to achieve the outcome.

  2. Debbie S. Says:

    Completely agree! A basic body of “known” facts is essential as it is upon that basic body of knowledge that progress can occur. Although I do think we need to shift emphasis when developmentally appropriate to method of inquiry and learning to learn, the foundation must still be built.

    I’d like to see a more robust discussion of WHAT facts are essential, though. Do my kids need to memorize math facts (IN ADDITION TO knowing the broader CONCEPTS and demonstrating understanding of such) so that they can be efficient in higher math? Absolutely. Mmust they memorize the categories of the Dewey decimal system or practice over and over looking things up in a dictionary? frankly, no.

    When I blogged about these ideas three years ago, they were old discussions. What does it say about the state of education that we are STILL having these discussions – and likely will for years or (sadly?) decades to come?

  3. Clint H Says:

    Knowing basic math facts is essential. But knowing and memorizing are not the same things! A student may memorize 7 x 6 = 42 but still not understand the concept of multiplication. Is this learning?

    I would argue that if a student understands the underlying concepts, then fluency in the basic math facts will follow naturally. Until she has the ability to “sight read” the basic facts, can them out by going back to the concept. It may take some time, but the fluency will follow and her overall understanding will be solid.

    • Debbie S. Says:

      Again, I completely agree, Clint. That’s why I emphasized memorization of math facts IN ADDITION TO understanding the concept behind multiplication (a la the Investigations program, for example).

      Even if you do understand the concept, as she did, and can explain it several ways, as she could, if you don’t have the math facts memorized COLD, the curriculum in math progresses so fast that at some point (sooner rather than later) you will quickly fall behind. This happened to us in 3rd/4th grade with the oldest and is happening again with our current 4th grader, requiring vigilance on our part and some extra time spent helping her “get fluent” – and yes, this means some rote memorization through repetition.

      But memorization alone, where the emphasis was when I was in school (I was born in 1969)? Not optimal, especially in this day in age, in my opinion.

    • Jamie Says:

      Thanks for your comment Clint. My question back is: How do you define knowing and memorizing when it comes to that 7 x 6 = 42 question. Most of my students KNOW that 5 + 7 means a group of five plus a group of 7, but they still have to count on their fingers or count objects, or draw pictures to find the answer. They KNOW what the question means and they KNOW how to get to the answer, but don’t they need to, at some point, memorize that 5+7=12 without much thought? As Patricia mentioned below, with our new math program, these students are getting left further and further behind as they get older without some of these basic number facts…

      • Clint H Says:

        Great discussion going on here Jaime!

        @Debbie S If a student has the concept down and is struggling with the recall of math facts, what’s the harm in giving him a calculator? I mean, we give students who are learning how to read books that have pictures closely linked to the text in order to give them the help they need in identifying the words, right? We don’t just expect them to memorize a whole bunch of words out of context and then offer them no support when they can’t do it, right? Once they have the confidence, we can then take that scaffold away. Couldn’t a calculator be seen as the same sort of scaffolding for those students?

        @Jaime As long as students know what addition means and can tell me why they are using addition (as opposed to subtraction, multiplication, division, etc), for a particular problem, I don’t really mind how they get the answer: fingers, manipulative, calculator or abacus! To use the reading analogy once again, after students have seen that particular problem enough times, they will know the answer by sight. As Deirdre points out below, many of the students will learn these facts in their own time. By focusing on the conceptual understanding, students are also equipping themselves with tools to approach problems where they haven’t memorized the solutions.

        • Jamie Says:

          @Clint ~ You bring up a valid point with the calculator vs picture book argument. Students who struggle ABSOLUTELY need the supports in place to support them, regardless of the content area. Where I see a problem with the idea is that picture books and calculators have different social connotations. A picture book is seen as childish, or, as we say in French “très bébé”. Kids struggle to move beyond picture books because they want to keep up social appearances. On the other hand, calculators are seen as a “cool” tool. Students WANT to have access to these tools. Many of them don’t work to rid themselves of a calculator, and in fact, I have seen other students beg to get one! And truly, once they know their basic math facts and understand how to find the answer, I don’t care if they use a calculator.

          Thanks so much for the discussion! It is REALLY making me think about things!

  4. ktenkely Says:

    There are basic skills that students must know in order to be successful. I think this looks a little different at the elementary level. There is some need for repetition and drill and skill type activities that give students quick recall. We take some of those things for granted as we get older. I think the key is in how we teach those basic concepts. Students need to commit them to memory but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are memorizing something in order to learn it. They should learn it authentically and then practice it regularly to get it down.

  5. Now that I’ve retired, I am tutoring part-time. One of my clients is a grade six student who does not know her facts. She is also in French immersion. We have been drilling by any means possible (online games, makeshift games, work sheets, flashcards, manipulatives) her facts. I’ve been teaching addition with multiplication in order to help make some connections, and subtraction with addition….

    Recently, the student brought her French Immersion “Math Makes Sense” text homework (this is the first time) for help with the machines in the first chapter. We were to determine the rule for each machine. Good grief! As far as I can tell, if you don’t have your addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts cold, these assignments will take you forever to complete. Also, I’m not sure if you would understand what had to be done in order for the rule to have been followed.

    • Jamie Says:

      I feel your (and your student’s) pain Patricia. We use this program as well. Without those basic facts and a basic understanding of the four operations, as Colin mentioned above, these students don’t stand a chance of keeping up, especially when you throw in the aspect of having to do it in a second language! I appreciate your input!

  6. Deirdre Says:

    I spend a lot of time working with kids with learning disabilities and one of the first things I realized with these kids was they all learned basic skills in their own time if we could just back off on our expectations of facts and taught them to love learning new things, taught them to find information that they wanted to know more about but mainly taught them to succeed in learning to do something. Many of these kids were bright, creative thinkers who felt such deep shame at being “stupid” that they stopped trying to read or calculate.

    I always reassured parents that their child would learn to read eventually, that buying them books on tape taught them to love words and allowed them to talk about books with other kids without shame; that a family that read together, raises kids who read in their adult years.

    Check out Engines for Education for another version of basic skills

  7. mrdubbs Says:

    Hi Jamie, I agree 100%. I have two young boys who are in kindergarten and grade 2 and I hope they are encouraged, no required to do certain things that might be construed as memorization. I am the recipient of many students in high school who can think there way around a problem but can’t multiply 3 x 3 in their heads!


  8. […] our own ideas better.  This happens quite often through blog posts.  For example, in my blog post What Gets my Goat, I expressed an opinion.  Through the comments, I have been able to clarify my opinion.  This […]

  9. Bethany Says:

    I’m ok with rote memorization and skill/drill and I think it happens at all levels. I mean, I know I had to know off the top of my head a list of names of prominent figures in my field and why they’re prominent and that was in my PhD classes. LOL But, what I really thought about when I read your post is that one of the skills mentioned in Connectivism is the ability to Navigate the Knowledge Landscape. I interpret this as it being important to know where the best place to locate some info is – whether it be on the computer, your next door neighbor, a library database, or your colleague down the hall. So, know that the info may be found on the Internet is a skill all by itself. Being able to actually locate that info in a reasonable amount of time is another skill all on its own. I know plenty of people who could look at a question and say “oh, that’s on the Internet” and then wouldn’t actually be able to find the answer. 🙂 I guess what I’m saying is, I tend to agree – as long as that isn’t the only thing that is being tested – which is what I think most people are concerned about when they make a comment like that. It isn’t that one test will have some rote memorization requirements – it is that every test does only that. I do see that as being a problem simply because it doesn’t address all the skills/knowledge levels.

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