Too many calculators and not enough plotted points

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On a regular basis, I confront the question: Where does the learning go? Academic fundamentals seem to fade away over the summer. Our elementary-school efforts become evanescent collections of fading facts and fantasies, math and English once seen and then forgotten.

Why do my students reach middle school unable to add 1/2 and 3/4? Why don’t they realize that a positive number multiplied by a negative number always yields a negative answer? Why have they forgotten to line up decimal points? Did a previous teacher really tell my students that they do not have to know how to divide? That’s less improbable than it seems: I had a district administrator tell me the same thing a few years ago, suggesting that I hand my class calculators and forget about the mechanics of division.

Other districts score much higher than my district. What do they do differently?

Eduhonesty: Part of my challenge this year (as usual) has been an egregious lack of previous learning to build upon. Teachers are supposed to start by finding out what their students know, building upon previously absorbed fundamentals. However, I have stumbled upon one, and only one, single item in my year’s curriculum that my students seemed to know. My students can plot points, even if a number needed a refresher on which direction to go and when. The mystery remains. I’m sure these kids added, subtracted, multiplied and divided fractions. Why do we seem to be starting nearly at scratch in so many places?

I have an interesting suspicion. Many quick, fun activities for math involve plotting points. We hand out points to plot that turn into pumpkins at Halloween. We hand out boats, trees and bunnies. We may even let students color and decorate the final products. These activities make good openers, five-to-ten minute activities that allow teachers to take attendance and handle administrative questions.

Perhaps the main difference between plotting points and adding fractions comes down to total amount of practice time. We practice plotting thousands of points. If I’m right, I’d say this fact argues for a great many more fraction worksheets even if worksheets are no longer in vogue. It also argues against pressing forward with the curriculum so quickly that those worksheets don’t happen. We need to stay focused on the need for repetition. All these fun activities to introduce new material provide little or no benefit when that material has become no more than a wisp of memory one year later.