Why do schools make math so hard?

Ian Mendes thinks schools should reintroduce multiplication memorization into the curriculum.


Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia.

I love it when my daughters come home and ask me for help with their homework.

They are both young enough that the questions are easy enough for me to answer, since they are in grade one and grade four, respectively.

“What’s the capital city of Ontario?”

“How many eggs are in a dozen?”

“How many windows does our house have?”

I look like a genius when I can rattle off the answers so quickly.

However, I am not looking forward to the day when the questions start getting a little tougher and I don’t know the answers. There are terms like “tangent,” “sine” and “cosine” that are buried in the deepest recesses of my brain—covered with 20-plus years of cobwebs.

If they ask me to remind them of the meanings of “kingdom, phylum and genus,” I will have to feign a bladder emergency and then discreetly Google the answer while sitting in the bathroom.

But for now, I can still handle most of their questions.

Read more: The do’s and don’ts of homework help >

Last week, Elissa came home with a series of multiplication questions and she needed me to check over her work.

The first question was:


She was completely stuck on how answer the question. I felt super-confident because basic multiplication is still in my wheelhouse.

So I said to her, “Well, you start by multiplying nine by four.”

She started at me blankly.

I return volleyed the blank stare, as I was somewhat stunned that she didn’t know what 9×4 was off the top of her head.

“So you’re telling me you don’t know what 9×4 is?” I asked her.

“No,” she flatly responded.

I was surprised because by the time I was in grade four, I had memorized all my multiplication tables. My parents used to drill me on a daily basis with flash cards that they bought from Toys ‘R Us. I can still see that damn Geoffrey the Giraffe’s face on the front of cards as I spent countless hours memorizing those times tables.

Read more: The reason why your kids are bad at math >

But today, kids are not being asked to memorize their multiplication tables. Alternative strategies—often called “discovery learning”—encourage kids to solve problems without relying on memorization techniques. For example, kids will cut a strip of paper into six pieces to learn about fractions or they will look at a picture of five groups of apples to learn basic multiplication concepts.

The problem with this approach is that when a child is asked to answer a simple multiplication question, they are completely lost—unless you can quickly hand them a bushel of apples.

It seems counterintuitive to me that children would not memorize their multiplication tables. Critics argue that using a rote method—where children memorize the multiplication tables—doesn’t teach the kids enough about the concepts of math. But if a child cannot quickly answer 9×4 without the use of visuals, then what is the point?

Kids learn to read by essentially memorizing how words are spelled. They learn grammar by memorizing the rules. So what’s wrong with learning math concepts using the same techniques? For those people who say that calculators and smartphones have rendered basic math pointless, then why bother having your child learn to read when they can just listen to audio versions of a book on their iPad?

If I ask a kid what is 6×6, they shouldn’t need a pen and paper. They shouldn’t need to say, 6+6+6+6+6+6 either.

I’ve seen certain websites say that kids can remember their multiplication tables using rhymes. For example, if you want to know what 3×8 is, just remember this simple rhyme: “Three boys on skates fell on the floor, three times eight is 24.”

Now instead of memorizing this pointless limerick, wouldn’t it just be easier to remember that 3×8 = 24—and cut out the business of these boys on skates falling on the floor? The whole thing doesn’t have to be so complicated.

The current Ontario school curriculum does not state that children need to memorize their multiplication tables, although the provincial education minister is now re-thinking that approach.

Let’s hope the educators can put two and two together and start teaching kids the fundamentals for math.

Read more: What our kids aren’t learning in school >

But as for me, I’m not leaving it in the hands of the school system to teach my kids the basics of math. I have downloaded some multiplication flash cards on my phone and have been drilling my oldest daughter with questions every night.

She’s not able to watch TV or read a book until she gets five multiplication questions in a row correct. I want to teach her the tables up to the number 10—so that she will know the answer to everything from 2×2 through 9×9.

She may not like the idea of it now, but I really feel like she will thank me for it later in life.