When a middle schooler from Arkansas, talking about “educating more people to operate these instruments”, asked Hungarian-born polymath John von Neumann whether “there [is] enough people to do it”, Von Neumann replied “[n]o, we don’t have enough people and we better do something about it, and I hesitate to say that we better do something about it quickly but we’d rather do something about it both quickly and then continuously”.
The United States heard that message in the early 1950s and set out to do something about it quickly. Decades later, I’m not so sure about the continuously part of it. I have misgivings about the current state of math education in this country. I fear we have a bunch of educators with a limited understanding of the subject looking for silver bullets by looking for the new hot method (new math, Singapore math, …) Instead, we should take a hard look at the curriculum and edit it with a machete. Math is vibrant and, with the renewed excitement around Artificial Intelligence, more relevant than ever. School kids need to be spending less time on tedious mechanical aspects like long addition, multiplication, and division and more times on advanced topics like linear algebra or statistics.
That said, there’s no substitute for rote memorization of the basics. The pandemic left my child with gaps in knowledge so I needed to help her memorize her multiplication table. We tried a number of approaches until I had a rather basic idea during my commute home. I wrote less that three dozen lines of python to generate the HTML below. All it does is let you enter the product of the row by the column. It will highlight it in red when you get it wrong.