Thursday, September 12, 2013

No Cursive; no hand calculations?

I recently read this neat Huffington Post piece about the demise of cursive handwriting. Well, demise maybe premature as the conclusion in the article was that cursive writing now belongs as part of the elementary school art curriculum.

So, if we can cast aside the century-old idea of creative handwriting as a mainstay of the elementary school curriculum then it's time we cast out the four algorithms, hand calculations, used to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I hasten to add that I am referring to the vertical form of algorithm where you put one number above the other with a line below and follow a procedure. We must, of course, still teach the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in all their forms but it's time we used technology to do the tedious part, so to speak. Learning the algorithmic procedure does nothing to enhance students' mathematical skills. But, there it is in the Common Core Math Standards (CCMS) due to be implemented in 2014. 
Conrad Wolfram suggests we should be using computers to take the drudgery out of hand calculating in maths by allowing students to use calculators and computers to perform these tedious hand calculations. 

I was beginning to go along with this idea until I read this piece by Karen Fuson and Sybilla Beckman about the inclusion  of the "standard algorithm" in the CCMSs. Their argument is persuasive and cites the practice students gain in developing their understanding of place value and base ten when they are involved in the completion of hand calculations. It is part of the process of mathematization that students go through when they are learning elementary school maths. The use of manipulative materials and technology are important in developing ideas but it is what happens in the student's mind that is the most important aspect of learning math; the ability to abstract and manipulate ideas mentally.

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