Memorization can be the key to so much knowledge. Being able to recite your times tables via skip counting is a laudable goal for any student, and co-ops often create competitive environments so students can showcase their skills in this area. The challenge is that while memorization serves as a tool to mathematical proficiency, our ultimate goal would be recall without significant mental engagement. In other words, “you just know.” It is because of this goal that we should not presume that, because a child can skip count their facts, they have memorized those facts.
Focus on Automaticity
The word for what we are really seeking here is automaticity. This is defined as the ability to do things without occupying the mind with small, low-level details. Think of it this way—you don’t expend “battery energy” on the recall.
Without this automaticity, more complex skills are difficult to master. The student wears out before the completion of the exercise because their brain has switched into overload. To parents, this can look like a struggle, disobedience, or even a disability.
When I talk to parents, they frequently recount that their students “just cannot memorize their facts.” I often continue this conversation by asking if the student is incapable of memorizing anything or if the struggle just seems to be with mathematics? We usually can pull humor into the conversation, because every child has something that fascinates them and they can carry on extensively about that fascination—be it dinosaurs, baseball, or an online game.
If you were like me, knowing that fact recall was essential to mathematical success, you might have “drilled your kids to the death” using the classic rote memorization tools of flashcards, drill worksheets, or timed drills. I wanted my kids to be able to recall a fact from their dead sleep, and we did achieve that, but at a great relational cost to us all. What we should be striving for is “fact fluency,” which is achieved through the knowledge that is produced when we understand patterns, relationships, and strategies.
What About Rote Memorization?
The challenge with rote memorization as a tool for fact recall is that if a fact is forgotten, the student has no effective tools to arrive at a proper answer. Their brain has created a “404 error” and the files are not found. However, a student possessing fact fluency has an increased number sense and greater flexibility in their thinking, allowing them to effectively use their knowledge of pattern and relation to recall a fact.
Think of skip counting this way: it is a springboard to greater mathematical fluency and mental flexibility. It is not a memorized fact set. If we want our students to be able to remain engaged with more complex mathematical concepts, we have to give them a solid foundation of a memorized fact set as much as possible.
This brings me to my final point. Some children will never attain a fully memorized set of multiplication facts. But if we as parents can move the ball for them with fact fluency and a greater number of facts that can be recalled with automaticity by even 10–15%, that is 10–15% less time that they have to endure brain overload in solving more complex problems.
Free Math Resources
Memorizing can be a lot more fun and effective with the simple inclusion of music and games. Here you’ll find free resources for building math skills and learning math facts.Access the Guild
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