BOSTON GLOBE: The real reason why the US is falling behind in math

Source: Boston Globe

Source: Boston Globe

Today on Twitter, I saw a repost of a 2015 article from the Boston Globe titled The Real Reason Why the US is Falling Behind in Math and it mirrored what I've heard from more than a few math teachers at schools where I teach. We live in a fascinating time where calculators and computers can do calculations far more quickly and with more accuracy than any human mind, but we still (rightfully!) want to make sure that our kids grow up with a basic understanding of math. 

Why is this? Because a LOT of the math we do on a daily basis doesn't require technology. I don't think many of us want to live in a world where getting change at the local deli requires the clerk to pull out their smart phone's calculator app to figure out what combination of coins adds up to your $0.76 in change. 

We still teach this basic arithmetic, though, because we want students to grasp the contours of numbers and look for patterns, to have a sense of what the right answer might be.

If math is so important... why have US students' math scores been declining over the years? As a mathematics researcher and professor, the author Tara Holm has some ideas:

We are pretty much the only country on the planet that teaches math this way, where students are forced to memorize formulas and procedures. And so kids miss the more organic experience of playing with mathematical puzzles, experimenting and searching for patterns, finding delight in their own discoveries. Most students learn to detest — or at best, endure — math, and this is why our students are falling behind their international peers. 

It's true! There is a difference between memorizing multiplication tables or various theorems and learning the critical thinking skill necessary to USE that knowledge.

It's funny... we now live in a world where you can look up almost all knowledge with a few clicks of the mouse, but this means that parents and teachers have to work harder because when students skip ahead to the "knowledge" they miss out on the intellectual benefits that come from figuring things out themselves!

That's why chess is more important than ever! It is the perfect complement to our digital world--a child can't memorize every situation in a game, but must use and develop the parts of the brain where critical thinking, creativity, logic and problems solving skills reside, making them better equipped to learn subjects like math.

But what is a parent to do about it? The author writes a number of ideas, but I'm willing to bet that you can guess which one stands out to me (emphasis added):

What can we do as parents? At my house, we sometimes talk through simple logic puzzles over dinner. There are lots of good examples on the Internet, even pirate puzzles to please my son. Sudoku, despite claims to the contrary, is all about logical problem solving.

Or how about family board games night once a week? I’m not talking Candyland-style games, all luck and no skill. Some favorites in my household include logic puzzles like Rush Hour and board games like TransAmerica, Clue, and Carcassonne. Of course, there’s also always checkers and chess. These games teach kids to think logically several steps ahead, all while having fun. And they are far more effective than the SAT prep booklets which litter the homes of high school juniors each year.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen this play out with my students. Chess doesn't magically make kids better at math, science, etc., rather it engages critical thinking, problem solving and logic skills that often remain under utilized in young minds AND does it in a fun and engaging way. I may not have the prestigious degrees and math credentials as the author, but I can 100% agree with her recommendations. I've heard too many stories from parents to come to any other conclusion!

Just another of the great benefits of chess!