What is 256 times 98? Can you do the multiplication without using a calculator? Two thirds of Massachusetts fourth-graders could not when they were asked this question on the statewide MCAS assessment test last year.
Math education reformers have a prescription for raising the mathematical knowledge of schoolchildren. Do not teach the standard algorithms of arithmetic, such as long addition and multiplication, they say. Let the children find their own methods for adding and multiplying two-digit numbers! For larger numbers, let them use calculators! One determined reformer puts it decisively: “It’s time to acknowledge that continuing to teach these skills (i.e., pencil-and-paper computational algorithms) to our students is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive and downright dangerous.”
Mathematicians are perplexed, and the proverbial man on the street, when hearing the argument, appears to be perplexed as well: improve mathematical literacy by downgrading computational skills?
Yes, precisely, say the reformers. The old ways of teaching mathematics have failed. Too many children are scared of mathematics for life. Let’s teach them mathematical thinking, not routine skills. Understanding is the key, not computations.
Mathematicians are not convinced. By all means liven up the textbooks, make the subject engaging, include interesting problems, but don’t give up on basic skills! Conceptual understanding can and must coexist with computational facility – we do not need to choose between them!
Much more, here.