Math can sometimes seem like countless
skill-based concepts that we must make sure children internalize. A misconception can really throw a kink into the works. I believe there is a math misconception that is never
taught but is far too often “learned” by far too many children. This misconception can significantly
impair their overall performance and damage their attitude toward math. This
misconception could be stated as,
“Since we have to learn
(memorize) basic math facts,

we have to do __all__ math mentally.”

What children
seem to do is transfer the necessity for quick mental recall of basic facts to
the entirety of math. The belief is, “I should be able to look at 3
x 5
= and instantly
spit out the answer. Therefore, I should be able to look at

and
instantly spit out those answers, too.” Believing this is so damaging to children
and their ability to grow
mathematically.

**How do kids develop the “all math is
mental math” misconception?** This
mistaken belief is
born just about the time that children grasp the concepts of combining and
taking apart. Well-meaning teachers and parents start
to focus vast amounts of energy on
learning (memorizing) basic addition and subtraction facts. As we move on in
math, we add multiplication and division facts to the task. Children who
struggle even a little bit with this task can start to fall behind in math and
may never catch up. What’s worse, they may develop an “I’m not good at math”
mindset or, worse, “I hate math” mindset.

**How does this “all math is mental math”
misconception hurt students?**__ __Beside
the frustration and negative
attitude that can result, students also miss the importance of talking about and writing about their math. They think that the only good math is mental
math, so why should I write it down? I’ve
seen kids who thought writing down their math thinking was actually a weakness.
This poor habit of not recording our
mathematical thinking further hampers math growth.

I
have seen so many children over the
years begin to pull into a shell as the need for efficient recall of math facts
hampers the
rest of their math performance. All of the other essential math skills
(rounding, predicting, estimating, drawing, analyzing, collaborating) that
don’t require math facts seem not to matter. Every math lesson becomes a mathematical
mine-field where the lucky ones who know their
basic facts will
shine and the unlucky ones who don’t may suffer acute embarrassment and chronic
frustration. I was actually one of those unlucky students – it took me years to
develop efficient recall. I never understood how my struggle fed right into the
“all math must be done mentally” misconception until I became a teacher – a
math teacher, of all things – and was able to recognize and verbalize the
problem.

**So basic math facts aren’t important? **Don’t get
me wrong. As a long-time math teacher, I am all about mastering basic math
facts. They are vital tools for so much that we do in math. Along my journey as
a math teacher, I discovered that there are infinitely better ways to teach the
concepts and learn the facts than the way I was taught…and, to be honest, the
way I taught early in my career, but that’s another blog post.

** ****What can teachers do to correct this
misconception**? I wish that I could go back in time and
directly teach what I have learned to my past students. What I can do is to take every tutoring,
consulting, and mentoring opportunity
to allay my students’ frustrations. My dialogue includes comments like these.
Maybe you can think of others that would work.

•Math is so much more than basic facts.

•Basic facts are the only thing in math that needs quick recall.

•Learning basic
facts can take time. In the meantime, we
can still do math successfully.

•You can write about and talk about math
without knowing the answers right away.

•Arithmetic is simple computation. Math is
solving problems using many math tools, not just basic facts.

•Writing about math is what great
mathematicians do.

•If you know most of the answers right
away, the math is too easy for you.

•Math is meant to be worked through.

I wonder if other teachers have
experienced this misconception among their students. I’d love to hear how you
correct it as you support your students.