Who Needs Long Division?
In continuing to teach old, rarely used techniques, we waste a great deal of our educational time, which is, after all, limited. Not that the old techniques weren’t useful for developing certain mental habits and skills. But if we believe the habits and skills are valuable, we should find useful, modern ways to develop them.
Is it digitally wise, for example, to spend large amounts of time teaching skills that practically all adults now offload to machines? These include, for example, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing large numbers. Do students really need to spend years learning the old methods for doing this (which, by the way, are really just paper-based shortcuts) even as backup? Wouldn’t it be digitally wiser to teach our young people to use spreadsheets and other widely used mathematical tools—and to use them well—from the earliest grades?
Many would be loath, for example, to see “mental arithmetic” go. But if we are still going to teach it—along with the fundamental lessons of what math is and means, which are still important—we must figure out how that skill helps twenty-first-century people, enhanced with digital tools. One of the only times when the ability to do quick math in our head is truly important is when we are negotiating: A person who can quickly figure out in his or her head the value of something proposed can have an advantage over someone who must pull out tools to calculate.
But is it digitally wise to spend years and years of their schooling—which should be a useful and inspiring time—forcing kids to practice long division and multiplication solutions to problems that they can easily do in other ways—solutions, moreover, that many of them will never master?