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Friday, February 18, 2011

How are your basic math skills?

I don't know how the situation is elsewhere but in The Netherlands there has been a lot of commotion about the basic math skills of teachers in primary schools. Since then students have to do an extra exam in basic math skills. The root cause was that basic math skills were only taught at the primary school level. In secondary school they got dependent on their calculator.

Link: Basic Math Skills Quiz


  1. This dovetails in quite nicely with something I was thinking about at the moment, specifically around how the subject is taught at Secondary Schools (at least in my experience) and I think you're right that most of the time when you're taught mathematics beyond the most basic levels it's un-thought of to do arithmetic in your head (again, beyond the most basic of sums.)

    It was definitely a paradigm changing event for me when I came up against OU exams where the use of calculators wasn't allowed. I know I'd used it as a crutch a lot in the past, so my basic arithmetic skills (especially under time pressure) had atrophied, to the extent I still have to often go back and double check my results more than I should when not relying on the calculator. I suppose it's something of a focus on "real world" application, where we would use calculators / computers that means we forget to learn the concepts simply as concepts.

    I think I'm going to write a bit more about this later.

  2. And I don't want to think about how I did on the linked test :)

  3. Kevin, It would be an interesting topic. It seems it is an issue in the US as well. Secondary school students who do calculations with ( Leslie ) matrices but need a calculator to do the actual arithmetic.

    I think that we owe it to the profession of mathematics that we =at least= have the basic math skills that children leaving primary school have.

    This reminds me of a beautiful scene in the movie Pi. Max Cohen walks down the stairs and a little girl comes after him with a big calculator asking him fractions. His last answer ( is similar to ) three point one four two eight five seven one four two eight five seven one four two eight five seven one four two eight five seven ( and so on ) ... fades to next scene.

  4. Hi Nilo,

    I still haven't seen pi, I keep meaning to watch it (I may in fact have the DVD sitting on a shelf, I just haven't found the time to do so yet.) I'll need to make the time to, though.

    I posted initial thoughts on the subject at earlier, but I think I'll get more posts out of this. My career aim is to get into teaching mathematics for this very reason, actually - none of my teachers (until I joined the OU) really engaged me with the subject as more than just a series of rote steps to find an answer, so I hadn't really seen the beauty of maths for it's own sake until very recently. I was at a video games preview event ran by Sony tonight, and in seeing some of the advances (your touchable holograms post also had a similar effect) in technology that are underpinned by our subject is really breathtaking, and I think something that people need to be more aware of, the role maths plays in almost every aspect of our daily life is something I think should be taught in schools a lot more than just "how to do the sums."


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(Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion, colloquially aka Raumpatrouille Orion was the first German science fiction television series. Its seven episodes were broadcast by ARD beginning September 17, 1966. The series has since acquired cult status in Germany. Broadcast six years before Star Trek first aired in West Germany (in 1972), it became a huge success.)