Algebra Mistake #2: Does a x a = 2 x a?

Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the benefits of analyzing algebraic mistakes, it’s time to explore a second common mistake. This one is so common that nearly every student commits it at least once on the road to algebra success.

As you watch the video, notice how by thinking hard about two expressions, we can think this mistake through to its very root, thus discovering the core difference between two similar-looking algebraic expressions.

And along the road, we’ll learn a general strategy for decoding the meaning of algebraic expressions. What I like about this strategy is that you can use it to understand the meaning of pretty much any algebraic expression, and you’ll see that it’s not a hard thing to do. In fact, it just involves using numbers in a nifty way.

Best of all, students usually find this approach interesting, convincing and even a bit fun. So here goes, Common Algebra Mistake #2 …

Memorizing those Times Tables

Is there any area of elementary math more fraught with stress and anxiety, save, perhaps, long division? Probably not. But for good reason.

Despite what a tiny minority of conceptual-learning purists might say, the times table facts ARE critical. Let’s face it: you really DON’T want your children to spend the rest of their lives reaching for the calculator to figure out 6 x 7; a certain amount of math simply needs to become automatic, to allow students to succeed at higher math skills and and to gain higher math concepts. Not only that, but knowing the times tables is widely recognized as a crucial milestone in children’s elementary math development.

In my work as a tutor, I’ve used many approaches to teach the times tables over the years, and each of them has one benefit or another. But I’ve settled on one technique as my “old-faithful” approach. This technique combines elements of both play and discipline, and it also melds both the “conceptual” approach and the “pure memorization” approach.

This technique relies on a three-step process, and it’s easy to learn and teach.

The first step is to simply isolate a particular times table fact set you’d like your child to work on, for example, the 4s. This act of isolating itself is critical. The child knows that she or he is required to memorize a limited set of facts for now (not the entire times tables), and that narrowing of the task decreases anxiety.

Once you’ve settled on the fact set, the second step begins, and it can be quite fun. In this second step there should be no mention even made of the times tables. All you’re doing in this step is laying the foundation for times tables facts. What you do here is work with your students/children to help them learn to first COUNT UP by the number you’re dealing with. So for example, if you’re teaching the 4s, you simply teach children how to COUNT UP by 4s. What that means is that you teach your children how to think their way through knowing and saying the following with speed and ease:  0 – 4 – 8 – 12 – 16 – 20 – 24 – 28 – 32 – 36 – 40 – 44 – 48.

I’ve found that most children take well to this learning process if you approach it in the spirit of a game. You might, for example, start by saying 0 and then throw your child a ball. She or he will then say 4 and throw the ball back to you. You then would say 8, and then throw the ball back to your child. Keep going till you hit the peak number, 40, 48, or wherever you decide to stop.

Another way to make this into a game for young children is to make it into a game like “patty-cake.” Make up a set of hand gestures to which you, very quietly, say:  1-2-3, and then clap hands and loudly say “4!” Then use the same hand gestures to quietly say:  5-6-7, and then clap again and loudly say: “8!” There are many ways to make this process of counting by 4s game-like. And if you’re short on ideas, ask your children/students what would make it fun for them.

In any case, once your children can accurately COUNT UP by 4s, work with them in the same fashion to COUNT DOWN by 4s. Same idea, but now you start by saying 48, or 40, and then help them count DOWN:  44 – 40 – 36 – 32 –  28 – 24 – 20 – 16 – 12 – 8 – 4 – 0. This takes a bit more time, but it can be done — and more easily than you might imagine.

Once your child can count both up and down, she or he has the mental “scaffolding” on which the times table facts are hung, as it were.

And so the third step involves combining this “scaffolding” with the actual times tables. Here’s how.

Have your children memorize what I call THE THREE KEY MULTIPLICATION FACTS:
x 1,  x 5, and x 10.

For example, when learning the 4s, these key facts would be:
4 x 1 = 4
4 x 5 = 20
4 x 10 = 40

Once children memorize those three key facts, help them see that to find 4 x 2 and 4 x 3, they just COUNT UP by 4 once or twice, beyond the key fact of 4 x 1 = 4. Similarly, to find 4 x 6 and 4 x 7 they just COUNT UP by 4 once or twice, beyond the key fact of 4 x 5 = 20. And to find 4 x 11 and 4 x 12, they just COUNT UP by 4 once or twice beyond the key fact of 4 x 10 = 40.

Work on this first, and have them master it before proceeding.

Once a child knows these facts, she or he has 9 of the 13 key facts (going from 4 x 0 through 4 x 12).

To learn the four other facts, help children see that to find 4 x 4 and 4 x 3, they just COUNT DOWN by 4 once or twice, below the key fact of 4 x 5 = 20. And to find 4 x 9 and 4 x 8, they just COUNT DOWN by 4 once or twice, below the key fact of 4 x 10.

By breaking the process of learning the times tables into these steps, you make the process less daunting for children. By teaching students how to COUNT UP or COUNT DOWN by the number you’re learning, you help children develop many rich aspects of number sense. And by connecting the process of COUNTING UP or DOWN to the times tables, you help children learn these critical facts both solidly and with understanding.

My advice:  try it. I guarantee that you’ll like it.

Happy Teaching,

—  Josh