Teaching mathematics to young children

Many people have what they term ‘a block’ when it comes to mathematics and I was no exception. I avoided math all the way to university, where it caught up with me. There, with the help and direction of two teachers who loved their jobs (Shelton Nicholls – now Dr. and deputy governor of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, and Sase Narine – still a teacher at a South Trinidad Secondary) I was able to make some headway (for the details you can contact me, but it would be too much for this article). Still though, I’m no mathematician.

Neuroscientists could find biological proof as to why some people are good at math and some aren’t; you know, the right-brain /left-brain stuff and related genetic reasons. However, I gave it some thought recently and I believe that they way math is taught to young children could be a contributing factor. It is only as an adult when I got into computer technology and tried to understand more about how processors worked that I discovered a basic truth about mathematics that few people consider i.e. in mathematics there is really only one operator in operation. We were all thought the four operators or four ‘rules of number’: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, the other three operators are just contrivances or speedy ways to use addition. When you minus a number from another you are really adding a negative number to it. Multiplication is really repetitive positive addition and division, repetitive negative addition. On the facetious side, regardless of how smart you think your computer is, all it can do is add.

This may seem a simple thing at first and many educators would think that it would be harder to teach the concept of negative numbers, etc to a child. That may be true, but it may help with relieving a whole lot of frustration later on. I remember trying to learn all sorts of contorted artificial rules such as: two minuses make a plus with the answer (the sum) taking the sign of the larger number; when you multiply like signs the answer (the product) is positive; and a host of rather unnatural rules that confuse many of us at that time. The rules might be good later on, to speed up the thought process after one gets a handle on it, not before the one internalizes. Mathematics is a natural thing like speech and language. It is a logical extension of the thought process and similar to what an author goes through when he tries to put keyboard to monitor (or pen to paper if you prefer). In fact, many of the great mathematicians such as Descartes and Pythagoras were philosophers trying to make sense out of what they saw around them. One interesting way to teach multiplication might be using what is known as the Chinese multiplication ‘trick’. For more info on that you can just do a Google or visit youtube for a video. Also we might want to take a look at the abacus. It would be nice if we, as parents, can put our heads together on this one.

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