I thought it was the three R's

Feb. 22, 2001
A recent news story confirmed something I had long suspected.

A recent news story confirmed something I had long suspected. Grade-school teachers responsible for teaching penmanship admitted that emphasis on good writing technique has fallen by the wayside since the introduction of computers in the classroom. Young students now commonly spend a portion of their time keystroking or hunting-and-pecking their way around the keyboard because that's presumably how they will be communicating in the future.

I'm sure this philosophy makes life a little easier for teachers because they spend less time standing at the chalkboard conducting writing drills. Don't get me wrong. I strongly agree that an early introduction to technology is important for children. But I also feel there is something fundamentally amiss if basic writing skills get short changed in the process. I doubt young children can be proficient at typing when their fingers can't reach all the home keys.

I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who complained that her fifth grader was expected to turn in typewritten reports even though he'd never had formal typing lessons. The cynics among us might suggest the teacher who made this pronouncement did not do so out of an interest in making students more techno savvy. The task of grading papers is less daunting when they are typewritten. But how would a teacher even know if children can spell or parse sentences when modern software so easily corrects spelling errors and points out grammatical blunders?

There is a conundrum of sorts about when and how to use advanced technologies in the lower primary grades. Some researchers suggest that calculators should be used as early as kindergarten. And calculator manufacturers such as Texas Instruments (TI) and Hewlett-Packard both have taken proactive stances to change the way math will be taught in the future. Both advocate making courses more calculator friendly. TI's T 3 (Teachers Teaching Teachers) educational program has a stated aim to "promote the appropriate use of educational technology in the teaching and learning of mathematics and science." A little self-serving? Just a bit.

Researchers contend there is data showing that calculators used in the primary grades don't prevent students from learning basic math concepts. They are said merely to do away with the need for "long, tedious computations and algebraic manipulations using paper and pencil, memorizing formulas, and endlessly drilling the skills they had learned."

Put that way, this justification makes math sound like it's been complete and utter drudgery for centuries. But that is not how I remember it in elementary school. One of my favorite memories is the adrenaline rush I used to get from the multiplication drills my teacher, Mr. George, put us through every Friday. We all got a sheet of paper filled with multiplication problems. Starting with the multiples of two we just had 60 seconds to correctly solve a jumbled array of about 50 problems. When you could complete them successfully, we could move on to multiples of three and eventually to more complicated problems.

This simple exercise indelibly stamped those multiplication tables on my brain, something that I doubt could have been accomplished with a calculator screen. Mr. George's method terrorized and thrilled me in one fell swoop. I will never forget how great it felt to move on to the next multiplier, especially when, in so doing, I beat some of the boys.

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