Give the gift that keeps on giving

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By John Pawlak

Christmas is long past with most presents either broken, shoved to the back of closets or donated to the thrift shop (like that purple and orange striped lycra body suit your Aunt gave you). Well, the holidays may be over, but you can still give your kids a wonderful gift.

To set the mood, give this simple little problem to test your kids for basic math skills. It’s just addition and you should tell them to do it in their heads, OK? Read the problem to them verbatim. “Take 1000 and add 40 to it ... Now add another 1,000 ... Now add 30 ... Add another 1,000 ... Now add 20 ... Now add another 1,000 ... Now add 10.”

Now try this one ... “A ball and bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” (The answer to that one is 5 cents)

Math is pretty easy, but it’s not always pretty. I discover new facial muscles every time I wince when a child says that word so often uttered in the classroom ... Idongedit. You have to say it as one word and kind of just let it fall out out your mouth ... Idongedit.

(Oh no! Is Pawlak going to crab about calculators again? ) Yeah, I am!

Having difficulties with math is nothing new. It took thousands of years to come to terms with negative numbers and the concept of zero. My wife often relates the difficulties she had with math back in high school.

The problem was “new math.” As she puts it, she found herself having to do new math with an old math mind. New math was born not from a fervent love of knowledge, but rather from fear. Russia’s entry into the space race raised national concern that we were falling behind them in math and science. According to 2006 PISA testing, we’re now behind Poland, Belgium, Austria, Canada, Estonia and 29 other nations (we scored 35th out of 57).

But it’s not all bad news. We’re still better at math than Serbia, Thailand and Bulgaria!

Math goes back quite a ways. The Babylonians could solve quadratics. Ancient Egyptians charted the skies with geometric precision. Numbers like pi have been calculated and used for more than 4,000 years. And where are we today? With footprints on the moon, DNA unraveled, a trillion bits of information rushing through hair-thin fiber optics ... students across the country have trouble adding fractions.

Math is simple, but the problem with math is even simpler — fewer and fewer kids today have mastered basic arithmetic. Think I’m wrong? Ask your kids some basic questions. Can your middle or high school child multiply seven times 16 in their head?

Give them some paper and see how quickly they can multiply 86 times 17 (if they can). Or ask them to do long division (try an easy one ... divide 9221 by 12). You think Superman was fast? The speed at which kids pull out their calculators would impress even Flash Gordon.

More and more students rely on calculators. They enter high school not knowing how to multiply decimals, or add fractions, or do simple percentages. And young adults aren’t doing much better. In restaurants, calculators are used to calculate the tip. If your bill at a store is $16.25, pay with a $20 bill. After the machine announces that you get $3.75 change, give the clerk another $1.25. Instead of giving you back a $5 bill, the clerk will stare at the $1.25 (as if looking at a dead possum laying on the counter), give you a look like a deer in the headlights and say “Uh ... the machine says I have to give you back $3.75.”

So how do we get kids back to basics? My solution is simple ... get rid of calculators! Well, not totally. Just prevent kids from using them in school until they’re taking trig or pre-calculus.

Students should be able to perform basic math in their heads in seconds, not minutes. Multiply 7 times 8. Take 20 percent of 60. Divide 175 by 25. Add 2/3 to 1/2. Add negative 16 to positive nine. Divide 8.4 by 0.2. What’s the square root of 169?

It’s not Christmas, but why not give your kids a late gift, one that will last forever? Throw out their calculators and give them some paper and pencils. Learning how to use their brains is a gift that keeps on giving. “Think” about it.

By the way, the answer to the question given at the start of this column is 4,100you’re your children got a different answer, have them check it on their calculators.