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Mental Math Games (Part 1 of 3)

The attitude and approach to teaching mental arithmetic in schools has changed dramatically over the past four decades, due to the widespread use of calculators. Originally introduced in the 1970s as the optimistically named pocket calculator, electronic calculators have shrunk so that they are now truly pocket-sized and portable. Additionally, calculators are regularly integrated with other devices, from cell phones and computers to rulers and shopping carts. The adage that you are never more than a meter from a rat could just as well be applied to a calculator!

In this brave new world, children would not need to learn mental arithmetic, long division, or counting, because calculators could perform all computational tasks faster and more accurately than the human brain. Instead of underpinning the teaching of the other subjects of mathematics, mental arithmetic would become an interesting diversion that teachers could explore at their leisure with the pupils, if the constraints of the program and the timetable allowed it. Whereas in the past learning mental math skills was a means to an end, enabling people to function well in a number society, in the future slide rules, times tables and newspaper tables would be thrown in the trash. The calculator would reign supreme.

As has been the case with many other technological advancements, the reality of the calculator has not lived up to initial expectations. Calculators are indeed fast, accurate and nearly ubiquitous, but we continue to see news stories where major disasters are attributed to miscalculations. In almost all of these cases, it is not the calculating device, whether a calculator or a computer, that has failed to calculate the correct answer. Instead, the problem is attributable to operator error, such that the person performing the calculation either entered incorrect data or misunderstood the math underlying the calculation and received the correct answer at the wrong question.

The reality is that the calculator does not relieve anyone of the need to have essential mathematical skills because using a calculator requires an understanding of the underlying mathematical principles of calculation. Additionally, it could be argued that mental arithmetic skills are required so that a quick mental arithmetic can be performed to check whether the calculator’s response is within the expected range. Take the case, unfortunately all too common, of a doctor who administers a dose of morphine ten times higher than the prescribed dose, thus killing the patient. A doctor with good mental arithmetic skills is unlikely to make such a mistake, whether he calculated the dose using a calculator or in his head. If you have a solid foundation in mental arithmetic, you will quickly spot any miscalculations using a calculator.

Fortunately, educators quickly realized that teaching basic math and numeracy skills, including mental arithmetic, was just as necessary as there was in the pre-calculator era. Despite this, many parents want to boost their child’s mental math skills by involving them in fun mental activities outside of the classroom. In the articles that follow, after-school mental math training options are considered, including incorporating fun math activities into a child’s daily life, after-school clubs, or online mental math games.

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