Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Math skills require practice, practice, practice

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DEAR EDITOR,

Re. 'Drill and kill' no way to teach math in 2011 (Sept. 22). It is extremely disturbing to see the negative term "drill and kill" used by Neil Dempsey, who is apparently a math support teacher. If Dempsey has achieved a solid background in math, then he must surely know that deep understanding of math and discovery of math strategies come hand-in-hand with considerable practice.

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When an educator in our public school system refers to practice of math techniques and memorization of times tables as obsolete, there is clearly something wrong. Simply renaming "practice" with the pejorative phrase "drill and kill" does not make it outdated.

Dempsey speaks of the days of "forcing a child to line up numbers and regroup them" as though it were tantamount to child abuse. This vertical method for adding that he disparages is referred to as a "standard algorithm" for a reason, and the standard algorithms for arithmetic are beautiful developments in mathematics: They're efficient, they work well and they're clever.

Although Dempsey speaks of these new "strategies" as though they were cutting-edge, in reality these are mental math techniques that people have been using for thousands of years. They work well with very small numbers but are extremely cumbersome when one attempts to apply them to larger numbers, which is why it is truly a shame that educators like Dempsey advocate against teaching children standard "vertical" algorithms.

His dentistry analogy is flawed: Although dentists update their training and techniques regularly, the basic principles of dentistry are largely the same. The dentist must still memorize teeth names, nerve locations, freezing, drilling and filling techniques.

A more appropriate analogy is found in comparing success in math with achieving competency in playing a musical instrument (or a sport). One may develop some understanding of the mechanics of how an instrument is supposed to be played, but unless one practises regularly, no level of competency will be attained.

It is only when competency has been achieved that a deeper understanding of math can develop. We agree that math wasn't necessarily taught perfectly in past years, but practice remains essential to math success.

As for the "rigorous studies" to which Dempsey repeatedly alludes, we await a list of references so that we may assess their validity.

TERRY VISENTIN

Department of mathematics and statistics

University of Winnipeg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 A19

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