My intent in so brashly taking on one of the lingering pillars of basic elementary education is neither to be unduly confrontational nor impishly irresponsible. I am not seeking to wrap myself in the banner of radical reformers nor to stir up the fundamentalists. Rather, my purpose is to raise an issue that is not going to disappear. It’s an issue that must be discussed openly and honestly and then resolved swiftly and clearly if we are to realize our aspirations for truly worldclass schools.
First, let’s clarify exactly what is being proposed. This is not about reducing emphasis on one-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. These facts and the self-confidence that comes with their mastery are more important than ever. Nor is this about abandoning computation, which remains an indispensable part of the mathematics program, so long as it is done mentally, with a calculator, or via estimates. It is about the formal, paper-and-pencil computational algorithms that constitute the core grade school mathematical experiences of most American youngsters. It’s about mindless procedures such as “carrying threes into the tens column,’' “six times seven is 42, put down two and carry the four,’' and “eight from two, can’t do, cross out the five, make it a four, and borrow 10.’' It’s also about memorized rules-- such as “yours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply’'--that, for most students, meaninglessly enter one ear and leave the other.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Viewpoint: A New Equation