Yesterday, I posted a story of a boy in Russia. I talked about some of the things I saw as good in the Russian education system. A teacher in the US was quick to disagree with me. She told me I was wrong thinking memorization is as important as creativity in problem solving. My comment relates to this article, and I will give details of my belief in the following text.
Memorization is the Foundation
I agree that creative problem solving is a good thing. However, I believe the US puts too little focus on the pluses of memorization.
When I was a primary student in the 1960’s, we also did memorization of multiplication and division tables. We learned basic addition and subtraction. These basics are the foundation of all math going forward. These basics have served me well in my career as an engineer. I am good at calculating, estimating, and fractional equations. My daughter is an example of where this does not work today.
My daughter attended first grade in Russia. In that year, her class studied multiplication tables. When she moved to the US in second grade, she was already 2 years ahead of her classmates in math.
The second grade teacher in the US gave the class calculators at the start of the year. My wife asked the teacher about doing this. The teacher said “we practice new math here” and “creative problem solving is more important than calculating by hand.”
The public school gave up on this math program in favor of another the next year. The school district’s reason was that the earlier math model was a failure.
My daughter is still ahead of her classmates in math, due to her learning the basics in Russia.
Educators must teach the basics along with creative problem solving in order for students to succeed.
Creativity in Creative Problem Solving
We discourage students from using creativity in this “creative problem solving.” We say we encourage students to learn concepts instead of “getting the right answer,” but our teachers do not practice this .
Teachers still grade students based on getting the right answer. The teachers also grade the specific methods the students use to solve problems. Students who creatively solve problems have points marked off their tests. That in itself is limiting student creativity.
An Example of Discouraging Creativity
For an example, my daughter struggled with solving the algebra equations her teacher was promoting. My daughter sought advice from her mother, a Russian math teacher, and some text books her Russian grandmother brought her. The concepts explained were much simpler for her, and still provided the correct answers to the problems.
The teacher reduced my daughter’s grade for not using the “proper methods,” penalizing her despite having the correct answers.
I learned the same methods in the US, back in the 1960’s, that Russians teach. Quite honestly, I do not understand the new method.
One Extreme or the Other
The issue I see is that Americans go from one extreme to the other. Americans do not seem able to balance on a middle ground. As such, we find it hard to teach creative problem solving skills while also utilizing basic memorization techniques.
Though many US teachers seem against memorization, many of our basics skills are based on this technique. For example, “i before e, except after c” (ok, it is a mnemonic rule of thumb, but we have to memorize it, yes?) How about quotation mark rules? Keeping Stalin and JFK from being strippers is based on comma rules.
So if memorization is ok in language, why is it so bad in mathematics?
Memorization is the foundation, and creativity is what you can imagine. You need both.