It’s important to keep our children learning during school breaks. Whether it be summer or holidays, keeping their brains learning helps make the transition back to school easier. Math  is a great example.

Learning During School BreaksFrom kindergarten through fourth grade, addition through division, various levels of “math facts” can be found in just about every elementary classroom. You probably remember them from your own school days—you know, those pages of equations combining all the digits between one and ten or even twelve, the ones you were supposed to memorize backward, forward and upside down…or else!

Well, math instruction may have advanced since then, but if you’ve got an elementary school kid, you’ve probably noticed that math facts are as crucial as ever. If this sounds like pressure, it often is—not just for kids but for teachers, too.That’s why, as the school year ends, packs of flashcards have come to join summer reading lists around the country as common tools for learning at home.Practice, practice, practice, so the line goes, and your child can achieve “automaticity”—perfect, instant recall.

Parents, if you’re wondering what it really adds up to for your kids on summer days, you’re not alone. Are daily summer flashcard drills the “new math” for American kids?

Not at all, say experts in the field. Sure, you can find store shelves packed with workbooks, and you can download math fact sets at dozens of sites online. And yes, says Michael Shaughnessy, Ph.D., President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, elementary math can be “almost like learning to play the piano—even doing a little bit each day can help.” But, he cautions, true math learning goes way beyond rote flashcards and instead challenges the mind to new and exciting levels of reasoning.

In fact, explains Aki Murata, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Elementary Mathematics Education at Stanford University, straight math memorization can even endanger real math learning. “Drilling is deceptively effective sometimes,” she says. “Kids can learn to spit back what you say, and then you think, ‘Oh, my kid is understanding,’ but if they haven’t had the chance to learn the concepts deeply, it’s like building a huge building without a foundation at the bottom.” Problems may not show up immediately, she says, but later, when the student attempts more advanced work like algebra, the ideas simply won’t make sense.

So what does help? Here is some practical advice from these experts and others:

  • Use everyday life, every day. Steven Sheldon, Ph.D., Director of Research at the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University, works with schools to strengthen family involvement that can boost student learning. Instead of worrying about fancy or expensive curricula, he says, families can provide crucial assistance by demonstrating “mathematics in the normal course of life.”  Small children, for example, can make huge gains in number sense just by rolling dice, counting, and adding. An older child planning a birthday party can practice division concepts by arranging guests into groups of four, or by figuring out how many cookies will go around. To be sure, adds Sheldon, “maybe you don’t want your child figuring out the interest on your unpaid credit card balance” but “you do want to see him do things like practice addition and subtraction by creating an allowance budget, going to market and comparing prices, or helping to make change.” In short, he urges, everyday life can be as effective as any flashcard when it comes to building math skills that will last.
  • Question, question, and explore. “It’s not that procedures and facts aren’t important in math,” says Shaughnessy, but don’t be lulled by a kid who just says, “Well, I just knew it.”  Even with very small kids, ask questions like “Okay, so how did you get that?” or “Well, I thought of it a different way. What about this?” Encourage young mathematicians to talk, talk, talk about their “math reasoning.” And as they get older, don’t hesitate to invite them to deepen and expand the problems themselves. “Let’s say,” says Shaughnessy, “that a kid correctly recites a math fact like 8+7=15. That’s great, but now there’s even more fun. Add some digits, for example, and ask ‘What is 18+7? How about 18+17?” With approaches like this, mathematics comes alive as a process, not just a body of fact.

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Learning During School Breaks