Although I majored in mathematics in college, and I have studied mathematics to a relatively advanced level, I have never been good in mental arithmetic. I cannot even multiply 2 two-digit numbers mentally. Heck, I would need a pencil and a paper to calculate 28 x 7. I just can’t do it in my head.
That is because mental arithmetic is USELESS and I have never bothered learning the various tricks and methods to multiply numbers quickly. The part of my brain that does arithmetic is relatively unused. Why is mental arithmetic useless? Simple, becuase there are calculators. There is no imaginable scenario on earth where being able to multiply 237 x 94 in less than 10 seconds is a useful skill to have. In fact, with everyone on earth carrying a handphone with a built-in calculator, mental arithmetic is as useful a skill as operating a gramophone. Nobody needs it anymore.
I’ve seen many adults spending hundreds of dollars, and many kids spending hundreds of hours mastering mental arithmetic that I pity them once they learn later that the skills they cultivated for years have zero value in the real world.
And don’t say that mental arithmetic will make kids better in math. Being good in mathematics have nothing to do with being able to count fast. I know some top-notch mathematicians at MIT who would take longer than usual to calculate 51 x 72 on the blackboard. Mental arithmetics have nothing to do with real mathematics. In fact, mental arithmetic is NOT mathematics. Mathematics is much much more than multiplying numbers.
What alternative do I propose for parents who’d turn their kids into mental arithmetic junkies? Teach them real math instead. Teach them about angles, ratios, shapes, fractions, decimals, powers, equations, unknowns, whatever. Just take any textbook and learn new things (do not underestimate the ability of children to self-study) rather than giving them endless drills of multiplying numbers. You’ll actually develop the children’s mental acumen, rather than turning them into robots. They are slower than a pocket calculator anyway, so what’s the point?
I do not write this because of snobbery — I couldn’t care less if other people are good in math or not, but because I’ve seen many kiasu parents who are obsessed into turning their kids into human calculators that they actually hinder their kids’ real mathematical education. Sempoa, mental math, kira guna jari, teknik adiputra, vedic math, semua itu sampah sahaja. Don’t waste your time and money on those.
(Photo credit: eHow)