Why do we require all this memorization and calculation in grade school?

Real scientists and engineers don't go around calculating multiple digit multiplications and square and cube roots on paper and pencil every day. They use slide rules, and computers.

I don't have to memorize and be able to list in a timed test all the possible routes from my house to the school, the university, the church, the club, the stores, the gym, the campsite, the library, before I am allowed to get a driver's license and drive myself around town!

I don't have to take a test of 500,000 high level vocabulary words before I am allowed to read Shakespeare, Chaucer, John Donne, Voltaire, Plato, Aquinas, the New York Times, USA Today and Reader's Digest!

I don't have to design and build my own engine and car before I am allowed to own or drive one. I let specialists do that for me; that is the beauty of living in a structured and specialized society.I don't have to know how to do everything! Same with my house, unless I happen to be a design engineer, architect, or contractor.

I don't have to be able to list by rote all the ingredients in a recipe before I cook it; I just look at the cookbook!

I don't have to have memorized all the chemicals, vitamins, enzymes and other compounds in fruits, vegetables and meats before I am allowed to eat them or serve them to my family!

The model for education should be like Just In Time Inventory Management: (you order it when you need it!)

This is just job security for the school systems. Read Ivan Illich's book: Deschooling Society. Although it is several decades old, the basic truths are still relevant today.

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  • Excluding me, or any dyslexic, verbal or mathematical, from higher education is tantamount to not allowing wheelchair occupants to drive, use public restrooms, go to movies, or enter public buildings.

    Most of use do not use mathematics every day. Most of us do not even have to do arithmetic every day. Even scientists and engineers do not all do their own computations and calculations by hand and on paper and pencil. They have calculators, computers, charts, graphs, laws and formulae (the correct Latin plural) which they consult and use as the need arises. We should allow pupils and students of every age to learn the basics whenever they discover a need for them and not before.

    If I suddenly decided to build the next space explorer I would have to learn how to use calculus and other higher maths. But even genuine "rocket scientists" do not have their times table memorized! The great chemists did not make their discoveries by being able to recite the periodic tables of the elements. Everybody studying ecosystems does not personally have to be able to do statistical analysis.

    Ivan Illich had it right in his book Deschooling Society. This is just a system of job security for the school systems. Worse yet, it is just a system of dividing us into social classes, and giving a false and unwarranted sense of superiority to those who have earned advanced degrees. Not everyone is, nor should they be headed for advanced academic degrees. It is an unhealthy economic system in which all the young are trained to be top-level consumers and no one is left to do blue collar and manufacturing work.

  • Very interesting and I agree that in 'real life' people rely on dictionaries/spellcheckers/calculators etc. Indeed some of my teaching revolves around using 'support tools' such as touch typing to try to create a more equal 'playing field'. However, I also believe that an understanding of concepts in literacy and mathematics is very important, many Dyslexics (and other learners) are pushed onto the next stage before they understand, for instance what multiplication actually is and how it can be used in 'real life'. I teach using visual tools and 'doing' rather than relying solely on a weak verbal memory (rote memorisation) so that there is a greater chance of information being stored in long term memory. However, I also strive to help Dyslexics with their times tables through short cuts and games as basic fluency is very important for many calculations (though I realise you may be talking about mathematics at a 'higher level' than I am!) and leads to greater mathematical confidence.

  • Dear Dyslexia-tutor,

    Everything you say is true! The methods used for teaching most of our math and arithmetic in school at all levels in this country today are abysmally insufficient and counterproductive, even for normal brains.They are absolutely impossible for those of us with the arithmetic dyslexia known as dyscalculia. My argument is that this reverence for rote arithmetic in grade school is a false value we have embedded into our school and social systems, and that basic arithmetic is no more necessary for everyone's life than knowing how to build my own computer, my own car engine, or raise,brand, wrangle, and butcher my own beef.

    In the past I would have been seeking a tutor like you to help me over this hurdle. Now I have concluded that it is wrong to require such mental gymnastics of all school-age children. It would be all right to present math and let those with an interest and talent in the area be introduced to further related studies, but we should not require it of all students just as we do not require all students to become professional ballet dancers, professional athletes, skilled painters, verbose writers of grand novels, speedy court reporters,simultaneous translators for the UN, fighter jet pilots,etc. People with certain brain configurations are not able to learn and retain basic arithmetic, yet may be able to accomplish higher math and science concepts and discoveries.

    I have heard and read many of Temple Grandin's presentations and she has realized that although she was stumped by high school algebra, she would have been fine with higher math.

    In his book titled "In the Mind's Eye" Thomas West tells us the story of several great men of science who did not succeed at high school math, people like Einstein, Faraday, Edison, Poincare, Maxwell,Tesla yet whose accomplishments are far beyond what most of us can begin to comprehend.

    My own life has been ruined not by my inability to memorize basic arithmetic facts and to remember sequence of operations, but by the school system's insistence on mastery and insistence on blocking me from further math and science education because of this inability, and by society's disdain of me for not having a professional career in spite of my high IQ. Apparently being an "underachiever" is a capital sin in this culture, no matter how real the disabilities causing such underachievement: in my case, chronic depression and anxiety, ADD, Asperger's, and dyscalculia.

    I find that the low level jobs I have been able to get with a liberal arts degree, no master's, and no fast touch typing, I could have done when I was in junior high. I find that the professional scientists and engineers I have interviewed are no more proficient at basic grade school arithmetic than I am.I find that the few persons who actually have to count, calculate or compute in their daily lives use various aids like calculators, tables, sliderules, formulas, and not their memorized grade school arithmetic facts and algorithms.

    I say we must drop these excessive demands for memorized arithmetic facts and algorithms by all children just as we dropped the requirements to wear neckties and suits to school, to say prayers before class, to learn Greek and Latin, to memorize the state capitols, to memorize the names and dates of the presidents, and to diagram sentences. I say we must drop these unrealistic and unfair demands before we raise a whole nation of people who hate and fear arithmetic because it is ruining their lives just as it ruined mine.

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