Can you still do long division?

The longer I remain a student, the more time I spend thinking about education in general. I think about the teachers I had in Elementary, Middle or High school. The professors I had in university. I think about why I liked some and didn’t like others. And I think about the skills I developed growing up, and what ones I still have versus the ones I’ve forgotten.

There was an article in The Chronicle the other day about whether it’s important or not for people to be able to do long division. I’ve had this conversation with many people over the years, and I’m always amazed by the number of people who’ve already forgotten how. And I’m talking about people who are in or were in grad school, and including areas like Computer Science where mathematics is generally important. And, in my experience, these people have lost the ability to do most forms of math in their heads, not just long division.

I’m a firm believer that being able to do things like long division is important. I think these are essential life skills. I add, subtract, multiply and divide all the time doing day to day stuff. Especially tasks like buying groceries where I’m hoping to get a good deal. And I don’t think we should be moving to become calculator dependent, because I don’t believe that they are equivalent. Knowing what buttons to press to add numbers together is not the same as understanding how to solve a problem.

In the comments from the Chronicle article, there was a link to an article from the John Hopkins magazine called Back to the basics for the “division clueless”. In this article, a professor of mathematics, W. Stephen Wilson, talks about how he did some informal studying comparing a freshman math class of 2006 versus a 1989 class. And he talks about how the ability to do fundamental basic math skills with out a calculator seems to be reflected in the students ability to be successful in the class.

Now, I’m probably a bit biased, as math was always a strong subject for me. In middle school, a few friends would call me a human calculator, as it was faster to ask me simple questions then plug it into the calculator. So this isn’t a skill I’ve ever struggled with.

But as I continue with grad school, and consider my options for when I finish (should that ever happen), I wonder what kind of students I’ll be seeing entering University in another 3-5 years. How much more dependent on technology will these students be? And will that have helped or hindered them?

I think, to be a successful grad student, and in many ways, a successful undergrad, you need to be a good problem solver. You need to be able to deal with unexpected changes to your schedule, your classes, projects, and ways of learning. If you can’t problem solve, it’s much to easy to burn out, get overly stressed, and fail. And, I think learning how to do basic math, is one of the first concrete ways we are formally taught how to problem solve.

It also makes me wonder, what other important life skills are we forgetting as we replace them with technology? I can think of a few that are suffering, like grammar and spelling, basic geographic knowledge, and reading comprehension. All more effects of a school system that is focusing more and more on how to find information, instead of knowing it.

What will grad students look like in 10 years?


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