Years ago when I was a student teacher, there was a battle of sorts being waged in the language arts curriculum: the phonics vs. whole-word approaches to teaching reading. On one hand, students were asked to sound-out all words they did not know, and on the other, students were asked to memorize thousands of words. Reality: fluent readers use a variety of techniques including but not limited to the ones espoused by such methods. When some people tried to call this approach "whole language" it created confusion as many missed the difference between "whole word" where individual words are memorized out of context with 'whole language" in which context, along with phonics and sight words is an important component.

Many moons later, we see a similar battle being waged in the teaching of mathematics.

There are the traditionalists who value "sage on the stage" and "drill and kill" methods in which students memorize algorithms and focus on answer-driven tests. Students become walking calculators, and weaker students are often left without the conceptual understanding to allow them to know when and how to apply these algorithms to solve everyday problems. Mnemonics such as "Yours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply", "FOIL" (which only works for up to two terms), and what I've only recently discovered, the "butterfly method" for multiplying fractions are examples of how conceptual understanding is replaced with memory tricks in order to gain a correct answer on a standardized test.

Then there are the constructivists who believe that students must create their own knowledge set through experimentation. They offer an overwhelming range of options for students to explore, but often neglect the final stages of consolidation and review, as well as time for practice with additional problems. Critics argue that since it took centuries to develop the fields of mathematics, expecting students to "reinvent the wheel" is a waste of time for everyone. Such teaching can also be time-consuming, and students who are struggling can become overwhelmed and confused with the large variety of methods to solve a given problem.

Again, just as in the reading example, the polar extremes reflect a false dichotomy when it comes to learning.

Since there seems to be a reluctance for educators, policy makers and the general public to consult the literature, examine what we know about cognitive development and read the studies, there becomes a tendency to grasp onto the methods one is familiar with and hold these as sacred. In many cases in North America, this means that the traditionalist methods are held in higher regard than the constructivist methods. Looking to other countries that tend to do well in mathematics, there are some interesting cultural differences that appear in the approach to teaching and evaluation. One example can be seen in this video with Phil Daro

http://vimeo.com/30924981.

In the middle, is student inquiry (again, the name is often used as a substitute for pure constructivism, which causes confusion) in which students are encouraged to try out problems using whatever means they can, discuss the various methods that worked and didn't, share and yes, memorize the methods that work consistently, and connect these methods and patterns to problems they encounter in everyday life. There is structure to the lesson, but there is also a place for students to work with problems on their own terms, experiment and make connections with prior learning. Lessons are scaffolded so that they build on concepts already mastered. Consolidation happens with the whole class and is reviewed again at the start of the next lesson. Students still memorize times tables and formulas, but they also understand where these come from and what is happening with them. They can use a matrix to show multiplication and can tell you why ax + by + c= 0 is a different way of showing y=mx +b, and how various different values of "m" will change the slope of a line when graphed. They can relate this to situations in their everyday life. They know what to do when confronted with

(2x + y)(3x +2y -z)

because they have learned the underlying pattern of how this works, rather than just a convenient but limited mnemonic. The understand that BEDMAS is an mnemonic shortcut that helps them use the distributive property, and that the multiplication/division are interchangeable as are addition/subtraction.

Without context, understanding of the underlying pattern, and sufficient understanding to apply the concept widely, a math student's abilities are no more useful than a calculator, and are likely much slower at that. We need people who can not only calculate, but choose the appropriate algorithm and problem-solve in a variety of situations. We need people who understand how to program the algorithms in the first place. Math is not a religion to be taken on faith; it is a science that stands up to scrutiny. We would do well to remember this as we approach the subject in the classroom.

Students learn by doing and thinking, by struggling through problems. When this is connected to their everyday experiences, it becomes meaningful. If we can recognize this in other subject areas, then why not in math?