To learn math, drill and instill math skills, writes Barbara Oakley in the New York Times opinion column. If it’s hard, so much the better. An engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., she is the author of Learning How to Learn.
Math is the language of science, engineering and technology. And like any language, it is best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice. . . . When we learn to play an instrument — say, the guitar — it’s obvious that simply understanding how a chord is constructed isn’t the equivalent of being able to play the chord. . . . rote practice, by which I mean routine practice that keeps the focus on what comes harder for you, plays an important role. The foundational patterns must be ingrained before you can begin to be creative. Math is like that, too. As the researcher K. Anders Ericsson has shown, becoming an expert at anything requires the development of neural patterns that are acquired through much practice and repetition. Understanding is part of acquiring expertise, but it certainly isn’t all. But today’s “understanding-centered” approach to learning math, combined with efforts to make the subject more “fun” by avoiding drill and practice, shortchanges children of the essential process of instilling the neural patterns they need to be successful.
All U.S. students could benefit from more “effortful practice” on the fundamentals, but it’s especially important for girls, who lack confidence in their math skills, argues Oakley. (On average, girls are as good at math as boys, but girls often are better at reading and writing.)
Students need to “grapple with and learn difficult topics,” she writes. “Practice and, yes, even some memorization are what allow the neural patterns of learning to take form.”