When I reflect back on my experiences as a student in the math classroom, flashbacks of constant memorization fill my mind. As a primary ELL (English Language Learner), I struggled to retain math concepts from grade to grade and became very anxious during math class. I became a silent student that would rarely participate and quickly learned that if I stayed silent long enough, teachers would eventually give up and stop asking me math questions. However, whatever I lacked in comprehension, I made up for in effort and memorization.
I found a way to cope in the math classroom and realized that if I memorized hard enough and followed the steps demonstrated by my teacher, I would be able to do the math. Sure enough, as I approached the junior grades, I would show up to school in September and would still know my “multiplication facts”. I remembered to ‘carry’ the number when adding, ‘borrowing’ from number to the left when subtracting, and writing a zero when multiplying multi-digit numbers. I didn’t know why I had to carry or borrow or write a zero but it didn’t matter because I could do the math. That just drove me to memorize even more and found myself studying hours in preparation for math unit tests. I eventually evolved into a master of memorization and memorized anything that I couldn’t understand (cross multiplication, dividing fractions, integer operations, area formulas etc). By the time I reached the intermediate grades, I was getting A’s in math and was considered a great math student by my teachers. I thought I was a pretty darn good math student too. However, my perception of math at the time may have been a bit skewed. I thought math was all about studying hard, memorizing the facts, procedures, and formulas. In grades nine and ten, I was on top of the math world and I equated success in math to achieving math marks in the 90’s. By that time, I had mastered the art of deciphering the high school math textbook. If there was a word problem that I was confused with, I would just find the similar sample problem in the textbook with the different numbers or I would look to the answer key at the back of the textbook, find the solution to the problem and try a variety of procedures or formulas hoping that one of them would eventually lead to the correct answer. I knew how to play the game and was I winning… until I reached senior math.
As I was introduced to the world of trigonometry, calculus, derivatives, vectors, logarithms, I could feel the old but familiar sense of anxiety that I experienced as a primary student slowly creeping back into my mind and eating away at my confidence. I became desperate when my A average fell to a C average and did the only thing I knew how, I memorized harder, pulled all nighters and took summer school. I was still able to graduate from secondary school with an A average with great effort and memorization but as I remember and reflect on my entire math education I realized that I wasn’t really “doing” math, I was “memorizing” math.
I’m not trying to imply that I never learned or understood the math that I was taught. I’m saying that the way I was taught math and learned math was very inefficient. My perception of math was repeating and applying standard algorithms and formulas that I never really understood. I was never asked to try and solve a problem using my own invented algorithms. I was never exposed to mental math strategies for the basic operations. I never used tools like the open number line or an array to add or multiply. Problem solving wasn’t embedded in the curriculum when I learned math but rather a unit that was also taught very procedurally. Math solutions were expected to look identical to the teacher examples and marks were deducted for missing a step or forgetting an equal sign. It took me a long time to realize and accept the fact that my perception of math was false and that I was a product of procedural teaching and it was a hard pill to swallow. Memorizing is not a mathematical process and not an ideal way to acquire an understanding of math concepts and skills. Math in the classroom is about problem solving, reasoning and proving, reflecting, selecting a variety of tools and strategies, making connections, representing , and communicating.