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Angelo DiTocco

Many adults long to experience the joys of being a child again. There were no bills to pay, no appointments to make, and no worries about politics or economics. But I’m not quite as nostalgic for the past. There might not have been anything wrong with how my parents raised me, but I still see my childhood as an era characterized by extremely early bedtimes, dinners I hated eating, and little-to-no control over where I went. And although higher education may be riddled with difficult labs and useless gen-eds, I still think elementary school was worse. Some parts of it were just so irrational that they almost drove me insane.

A particularly frustrating part of my early education was an exercise known as “Minute Math.” As its name might suggest, this was a type of worksheet we were periodically given and told to try to finish in under a minute. The worksheet contained 30 multiplication problems with factors up to 12 (or 30 division problems with quotients and divisors up to 12). This meant that in order to complete the challenge, you would have to spend an average of under 2 seconds on each problem. Note that the calculation used to determine that number, 60 divided by 30, was not a problem you could get in Minute Math. That should give you an idea of how unhelpful it was in the long run.

I have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to math, but at the time, I didn’t have the necessary speed to finish every problem in under a minute. I would always fall a bit short, maybe completing 20 or 25 problems before time ran out. This rate would still be good enough for anyone in future grades using multiplication or division as an intermediate step in higher-level computations. However, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t truly be good at math unless I could beat the time challenge. I don’t have any proof that my teachers actually implied this—it could have just been a delusion that I created myself. Nevertheless, I wasn’t happy with my results. So I tried again and again, going through all the worksheets my teacher gave me and then going online to print out my own. I got through 26 problems, then 27, then 28. After several attempts, I was able to finish all 30 problems in under a minute, and I was finally satisfied with the product of my efforts. But the underlying problems in elementary math education remained.

Doing math as a kid was more of a chore than a learning process, at least for me. It seemed like each new topic I learned would be repeated infinitely, and moving on to topics that were actually interesting was not an option until we were absolute masters of the basics. Even variations as simple as adding the ¢ symbol at the end of each two-digit number had dozens of extra homework assignments associated with them (funny enough, doing math with amounts strictly under a dollar is basically useless now because of how bad the economy has gotten, but that’s a tangent for another day). This level of repetition is practically unseen in higher education, where each new topic is given several days at most. 

The boring and repetitive nature of elementary math education can be blamed on a number of factors. It could be due to overworked teachers not having enough time to figure out how to properly pace their lessons, or it could be mandated by state governments who aren’t quite on the same wavelength as educators. Whatever the reason may be, the current system is causing problems for students later down the line. Not only is it turning off students from taking higher-level math classes they might be easily capable of, but the focus on speed could be causing them to mistakenly think they have ADHD or other learning disabilities.

The way I see it, there’s really no need for students to be forced to have a perfect memory of basic arithmetic problems that can be accessed at lightning-fast speeds. In secondary math education, lessons on how to find the values of more advanced functions such as square roots and sines by hand are nowhere to be seen. Methods do exist for doing so, but students are instead just taught the greater purposes of these functions, including what they represent and what they can be used for. We’re then allowed to use calculators to actually compute these values (before calculators were invented, our ancestors did this with massive lookup tables). And in most science classes, students are given reference tables with all the relevant formulas and numerical data, as they’re really being evaluated on their understanding of the concepts.

So why not allow elementary-schoolers to hold on to their multiplication tables or use four-function calculators while they move on to more interesting topics like basic algebra and geometry? Not only will this proposition allow students to understand the point of learning math when calculators exist, but they’ll eventually become more acquainted with the basic operations anyway as they gain experience using them in more complex calculations.

There wasn’t anything truly horrific about Minute Math as the title might have implied; it was really just a fraction of the many issues that plague today’s society. Still, it’s a prime example of what’s wrong with elementary math education as a whole. It easily shows that too much emphasis is put on pure memorization and speed rather than on actual understanding and application of the underlying concepts. Luckily, the education system is variable, so I can only hope that my future children will be spending their time on something orders of magnitude more useful than repeatedly trying to solve 30 math problems in 60 seconds.

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