# How many digits of pi did you have to memorize?February 22, 2007 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone else ever had the insane/completely useless (save for its novelty) experience of having to memorize a certain number of digits of pi (52 in my case) for a middle school math class (or any class for that matter)? I had to do just that to pass my 6th grade math class. Was my teacher a little off or was she just trying to teach us the value of ..... something or other? (I still remember 26 digits, but that's as far as I can go.)
posted by inconsequentialist to Education (59 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Your teacher was a little off, for sure. There's absolutely no pedagogical value to forcing children to memorize 52 digits of pi! Wouldn't it have been a better use of memory work to force you all to get your times tables down up to, say, 12? (Not that you didn't all know your times tables by then.)

What's I've always wanted to know is: what is pi? I mean, I know it's the number you use to figure out the circumfrence, blah blah, it's 3.1415926535 (that's as far as I know). But what is it? What numbers are being divided that lead to this unending number? How was it discovered? If your grade 6 teacher taught you that, I'd give her a pass on the weird memorization exercise.
posted by Dasein at 7:58 PM on February 22, 2007

Your teacher was off. I could see pi memorization as a bonus for a test or something, but forcing kids to do it to pass is ridiculous. There's no value to it, mathematical or otherwise.
posted by cgs06 at 7:59 PM on February 22, 2007

No. You had to do that to pass class? That seems a touch off, but hey, maybe you learned some discipline. Or something.
posted by taliaferro at 7:59 PM on February 22, 2007

It's no more valuable than the reading "comprehension" tests that ask things like "what color was victor's car?"

Bad teachers confuse education with trivia.
posted by hutta at 8:03 PM on February 22, 2007

Dasein: pi is the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle.
posted by danb at 8:04 PM on February 22, 2007

thanks, danb. I suppose Google probably could have told me that, but thank you.
posted by Dasein at 8:06 PM on February 22, 2007

Also, according to Wikipedia, "computing the circumference of a circle the size of the Milky Way with a value of pi truncated at 40 digits would produce an error margin of less than the diameter of a proton."

So even if there was some value in memorizing pi, 52 digits is pretty excessive.
posted by danb at 8:06 PM on February 22, 2007 [5 favorites]

For spelling in 1st grade I had to learn how to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I think some teachers are just mean.
posted by emyd at 8:12 PM on February 22, 2007

Personally I kind of like the rituals of memorising fairly obscure or unnecessary information. They may not be directly useful, but I do think they add up to a tradition which values the retention of knowledge for its own sake and this is not a bad thing. While I'll never use it, I know Pi to more digits than I need to, and I can always fire off Kindgom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species. Collectively it adds up to more than just memorisation. It's better than having a teacher that doesn't care, too.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:13 PM on February 22, 2007

I once had to memorize the periodic table for 8th grade science class, though I think that is somewhat more useful than memorizing pi. Most people I've known who memorize large chunks of pi are geeks who do it for bragging rights.
posted by pombe at 8:18 PM on February 22, 2007

I've only had these kinds of things done for extra credit. I think if for anything getting kids excited about something educational.

Then again my thing to learn was the alphabet backwards. Which I guess would do me well in a DUI stop ;-)
posted by bitdamaged at 8:19 PM on February 22, 2007

My best friend's father had to do something similar for High School or college, memorizing it out to the 50th. Oddly enough, he told me a story wherein he found himself sitting next to a woman on a plane one day that had it memorized out to the 100th.
posted by tdischino at 8:20 PM on February 22, 2007

We just had to memorize to 12 digits. For no good reason I'm sure, except that Pi as a number seems to have some magic.

I saw this visual explaination of Pi recently and found that it explains what Pi is really nicely.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Today's_featured_picture_(animation)/January_20,_2007
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:24 PM on February 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

The sad part is that I don't even really like pie.

I can see the value in memorizing the period table for a chemistry class though, except for the symbol for molybdenum. I have no clue what that element is to this very day. Anyone?
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:25 PM on February 22, 2007

I'm going to suggest based on the info offered that your teacher was an ass. One of the first principles (OK, one of my first principles, anyway) of teaching is that a good teacher creates opportunities for students to succeed, not opportunities to fail. Trying to get kids (or anyone) to memorize 52 effectively random digits, even if some of them succeed, is failure in a goddamn bucket. Man, I hate bad teachers.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:29 PM on February 22, 2007

But what is it? What numbers are being divided that lead to this unending number?

22/7

posted by Salvatorparadise at 8:44 PM on February 22, 2007

22/7 is an approximation.

Dasein was not asking how to calculate pi, s/he was rightly suggesting questions a good teacher might explore in class.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:46 PM on February 22, 2007

A friend and I had a completely voluntary pi-remembering contest (can't remember in what grade, but probably not much after Grade 6). I stopped at 65 places, he stopped at 80. I still have those 65. I haven't seen him for years, so I don't know if he still has his 80.

I can't see any pedagogical value in making kids do this, unless it was done as part of some larger "teaching kids how to memorize arbitrary stuff" part of the curriculum. 65 digits of pi has not actually been a huge amount of use to me, though the rote-memorization training I got in Grade 3 as part of learning the times tables definitely has.

Rote learning is desperately out of fashion these days, but sometimes (as in the case of the times and addition tables) brute force memorization is a simply the most labour-saving way to learn something that needs to be learnt. The ability to learn random stuff "off by heart" is far more valuable than any particular piece of that random stuff.
posted by flabdablet at 8:51 PM on February 22, 2007

They may not be directly useful, but I do think they add up to a tradition which values the retention of knowledge for its own sake and this is not a bad thing.

The thing is, though, it isn't knowledge. It's trivia. There's a distinct difference. Memorizing the definition of pi would be knowledge. Memorizing a consecutive series of its digits is trivia.
posted by odinsdream at 8:53 PM on February 22, 2007

As a former high school math teacher, let me stand up to suggest that memorizing is a valuable skill and that the practice of that skill by stretchy young minds almost certainly yields benefits in ability, analagous to the way exercising musculo-skeletal skills yields benefits, not least in the "wow I wonder how far I can run" or "damn I'm up to 60 digits" department. And while memorizing the periodic table or state capitols (though perhaps not the Gettysburg Address) might have more practical applications later, this was a middle school math class and pi is a fun and interesting number and the task seems just fine as a one-off lark for that group. They probably already had the multiplication tables down by then, anyway.
posted by mediareport at 8:54 PM on February 22, 2007

Did you really have to remember them all? If you got the 51st digit wrong, would you fail the class?

Maybe it was just a learning experience.... Years ago, my high school history teacher was a diety, every day the blackboards around the room were covered with the outline of the class and he would start talking when the bell rang and wouldn't stop until the bell rang again. We were tested on some random general's horse's name. Maybe it was just the difference between a 100% or a 95% on a test. But it was an exercise in listening and learning. A majority of the class took the AP History exam and scored a 4 or 5, enough to count for college credit.

Maybe your teacher is just trying to push you in a direction that will do you some good should you choose to be a math major.... :)

I only remember the first 8 digits of PI.... but even 20 years later, I remember more about world and U.S. history than most people I run into in daily life...
posted by zengargoyle at 8:55 PM on February 22, 2007

I'm not entirely in disagreement with you, mediareport, particularly about the value of stretching young minds in different ways, but the Asker says 'I had to do just that to pass my 6th grade math class,' and I don't reckon that's an acceptable way to do it.

Like I said, though, we can only go by the information given.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:57 PM on February 22, 2007

We really did have to get all 52 digits down. There were steps in this process of course. Each week we had to memorize a few more and each week we had to recite them to our teacher. We were given more than one opportunity of course to recite the 52 digits when we got to that point and those who memorized more than that were given extra credit of some kind I believe. But, yes, you had to, at some point, recite the first 52 digits without erring to pass the class.

I've had many, many teachers that have utilized rote memorization as part of their pedagogical repetoire and I've found the things that I've learned from that sort of memorization very useful in both practical and more theoretical affairs. I've just always found it a bit odd to encounter that sort of memorization in a math class of something that is ultimately (at a certain point... past the 40th digit maybe) irrelevant (for most people in any case).
posted by inconsequentialist at 9:05 PM on February 22, 2007

In high school English, I had to memorize the first 40 lines of the Canterbury Tales in middle English. I only remember about the first 8 lines now, and I've never had any use at all for it, and can't conceive of why we were supposed to do it.

Unfortunately, part of education in this country is teaching a kid to sit down, shut up, and follow orders from those in a position of power above them, even if the orders make no sense whatever.

(We asked our teacher what good it was, and were told, "Well, it'll give you something to talk about at cocktail parties." Need I mention I've never been to a cocktail party in my life? And at beer keggers we didn't talk about highbrow stuff like that.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:07 PM on February 22, 2007

When I say that I had to memorize 52 digits of pi to pass the class, I mean that it was one of the requirements. That wasn't the only requirement of course but it was the most peculiar.

I really do appreciate the novelty of having memorized what I did and it wasn't a difficult task at all. I had just never heard of it being done otherwise and it's never struck me as having had the same sort of influence or efficacy, say, as having been made to memorize other seemingly trivial pieces of information throughout my academic career.
posted by inconsequentialist at 9:11 PM on February 22, 2007

Pi x 10^7 is roughly the number of seconds in a year.

That's really all you need to memorize about pi in my world.

(I only know it to 7 digits)

(I don't think I even knew what pi was in 6th grade)

(That said, I think rote memorization is somewhat undervalued in modern education)

(Still, 52 values of pi in 6th grade is insane)
posted by dirigibleman at 9:18 PM on February 22, 2007

Thinking about what Steven said, I would argue that there is something to be said for memorizing poetry or prose, though, if not as a test hurdle. Memorizing effectively random digits -- not so much, bar the mental calisthenics angle that mediareport suggests. And I say this as someone who was trained as a high school mathematics teacher, though I haven't taught math (or high school) in decades.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:22 PM on February 22, 2007

After the first 10 million digits, pi turns into a series of 1's and 0's that is a message from an alien civilization. But you're certainly not going to get that from the first 50.
posted by ontic at 10:18 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

The only things I remember having to memorize are 1) the Gettysburg Address, 2)Paul Revere's Ride (We didn't have to memorize the whole thing, just... thirty lines or so, I think, but we got extra credit for memorizing extra) and 3)Geography-related things (sadly, to this day I cannot find Idaho on a map unless it is marked. I know a few states and a few countries). Although of course in History we were expected to know names of important people and places and why they were important, I think that's a bit different.

In one of my math classes, there was a long strip of paper along the walls with pi to a hundred digits, but we only had to know what it was and that it was about 3.14. I use 3.1415926 or the button on my calculator if I want to be more precise.

I do know e to ten digits after the decimal point, but it's because of a mneumonic I read in some book or other:
"To express e, remember to memorize a sentence to simplify this."

"To" is 2, "express" is 7, etc. And actually I have to think about it a little and go, "Two, seven, one... remember, eight, two... eight, one..." in my head. There was one for pi, too--it may have been in rhyme--but it was longer and I don't remember it.

So... yeah, it's basically just memorization for memorization's sake. I hope that's what she was going for, and not "this is something you will need to know".
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 10:34 PM on February 22, 2007

i use pi in calculations every day in my line of work. i know it out to 6 decimals, but i rarely use them all. when i'm being anal about things, and i go look up 8 or so for doing simulations.

no, i don't think there is any value in knowing the base-10 numbers. particularly not to 52 decimals. (why 52 anyway?) it's far better to understand and appreciate the generating series, or euler's formula, and to actually have an appreciation of the meaning of pi.

hell, i don't even think pi is the most important of the transcendental numbers. if the point is to learn the memorization skills, why not memorize 8 digits of pi, 8 digits of e, 8 digits of sqrt(2), 8 digits of the golden ratio, and so on.. along with lessons about why they're important.

it could be lazy teaching, or it may be part of the generally dumb and misguided reverence for the digits of pi that perhaps your teacher shares with the rest of the world. but i don't see any convincing argument for it being a worthwhile use of your clock cycles.

also, you sound fairly smart for a sixth grader, and as an outsider i'd be concerned that this is the kind of crap that turns smart kids away from learning.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 10:35 PM on February 22, 2007

ok, i guess i ought to be advocating courses in reading comprehension as well. for some reason i read your question as "i just had to do that to pass my 6th grade math class". sorry. but you probably were a smart sixth grader anyway, and it is the sort of thing that turns kids off from learning.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 10:41 PM on February 22, 2007

I was bigtime into the mathletics program in my high school, so I remembered out to 3.14159265, but I'm pretty sure the only value most kids knew was 3.14.
posted by IvyMike at 11:09 PM on February 22, 2007

also, you sound fairly smart for a sixth grader

Thank you, sergeant. I like to think of myself as fairly smart for a sixth grader but, alas, I'm not in sixth grade now. I was in sixth grade 15 years ago. And.... I passed!!!! In fact, they've since let me into graduate school to study philosophy!!! And, yes, I was probably a smart sixth grader but I'm not going to go making any rash claims.

The reason I recently started thinking about this bizarre memorization experience today is because last night one of my friends, who didn't know anything about this story, asked me to sing for him all the digits of pi that I knew. And I did just that.
posted by inconsequentialist at 11:10 PM on February 22, 2007

No, your teacher was filling time. Maybe s/he didn't know enough about math to fill out the lesson plan, or maybe s/he was lazy.

But this was a waste. Their are plenty of useful things to memorize about math: De Morgans's rule, that xa * xb is xa+b, that m/n is 1 * m / n, that negative * positive is negative, etc. Those are useful because you can apply them to math problems generally. PI is useful in only one (admittedly important) circumstance, knowing the ratio of circumference to diameter. For any approximation or real-world task, knowing 52 digits is (incredible) overkill; in the rare rare cases you'd need that precision, you'd use a computer anyway, to avoid error. So this is useless trivia.

Far better to memorize an inspiring poem so to be able to repeat it in the dark nights of your soul. Hell, better the Lord's prayer that 52 digits of PI.
posted by orthogonality at 11:30 PM on February 22, 2007

In my nerdier days, I had to remember 100 digits to join the 100 Club. I sympathise with forced pi remembering. As you point out, it's not that hard, and it does teach you something about the process of memorisation itself.
posted by roofus at 11:40 PM on February 22, 2007

My 7th grade English teacher had the entire class memorize "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. Everyone had to recite it aloud in front of the rest of the class at least one time. She was a pretty cool teacher, and not one prone to relying on rote memorization exercises for their own sake.

She said she did it because she wanted each of us to carry this poem through the rest of our lives. I thought it was a little hokey at the time... but I can still recall the entire poem today. In the intervening years I have faced plenty of dark woods of my own and I am glad to have this poem still in my head where so many other things I read in English class are long gone.
posted by rhiannon at 11:57 PM on February 22, 2007

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned that Pi has been recited to 100,000 digits. A paltry 52? Pfft!

Of pi, I can only remember 3.14159, but of e I can recite 2.718281828459045 - fairly easy, too!

Hint: 2.7 1828 1828 45 90 45
posted by PuGZ at 2:54 AM on February 23, 2007

pi usually is the quotient of the number of miles a river takes to flow to the sea and the number of miles a straight man made canal would take.

So yes, pi is interesting, not only because of the circle.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:27 AM on February 23, 2007

RE: helping students succeed vs allowing them to fail.

Many students have a great deal of trouble with the abstract qualities of math, especially "word problems." While the ability to translate verbal concepts into mathematically measurable statements is arguably the most important part of learning math, many students are going to feel hopelessly discouraged by it. By introducing a memory component, the less-abstract students can feel like they belong in the class and may be less likely to give up on the bits that are harder for them.

My brother sucked at reading comprehension, so was totally thrilled at being able to succeed at memorising poetry. My sister sucked at math though she worked really hard at it, and basically tried to succeed by memorising every answer in the text. A rote memory component of the course would have allowed her to feel more relaxed about math generally.

Including rote memory in a math class also makes it really clear to students the different skills they are using/developing in rote vs analysis. It might help certain kids realise that rote is not the way to go with the rest of math class: all it can do is get you a series of digits of one single number. The rest of math class is not being helped by all this memory work. That might have been part of the point.
posted by kika at 4:32 AM on February 23, 2007

First, rote memorization is a skill and at times it is a necessary skill. Rote memorization without the context of a larger goal is difficult to get students to buy into. The 52 digits of pi with no context? Not so great.

An example of context: I taught 7th graders basic engineering and they had to design, measure and build things to spec. A good third of the class truly sucked at going from fractions to decimals. A good half couldn't go the other way. I had them memorize all the fraction to decimal and decimal to fraction conversions for half, quarters, and eighths, as we would be doing these all the time and if they dug out a calculator for every measurement (I'm not making this up - I've seen it), they would be seriously behind.

FWIW - I also disdained calculators, by routinely racing kids. For example, if I wanted them to have a class average of some measurement, I'd have a kid write them on the board and race two or three kids with calculators. It is a really quick way to engage an entire class (kids trying to beat a teacher, especially if they have a perceived advantage) and for a few kids inspires them. I never lost, but then again, 7th graders can't push buttons accurately and quickly under pressure...
posted by plinth at 4:38 AM on February 23, 2007

PI is useful in only one (admittedly important) circumstance, knowing the ratio of circumference to diameter.

Er, no. Pi crops up in a lot of places in math, many of them having nothing to do at all with circles. "The ratio of circumference to diameter" is just the simplest of them to explain, so that's where we start out. See, for one example, Stirling's approximation.

But still, no one needs to know pi to 52 decimal places.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:24 AM on February 23, 2007

I only remember it up to 3.141592, and with this newfangled technology called calculators all you need to do is hit the (pi) button and the computer does the numbers for you.

In Japan every kid memorizes the calculations for 1*1 ~ 9*9 (and all 79 multiplications in between). This is still memorization, but it does have its use since having that basic 1-digit multiplication burned into your brain does (seem to) speed up arithmetics.
posted by Muu at 5:56 AM on February 23, 2007

I wish I could calculate pi. Eureka cried the great inventor. Christmas pudding, christmas pi. Is the problems very center. Gets you to 20. (The number of letters in each word correspond to a digit.)

But yeah it's weird that you had to memorize a essentially meaningless number. But then again I know lots of people that had to memorise the 50 state capitals which is probably harder and similarly useless. Memorizing information may have spillover effects for learning useful information. but frankly I think your teacher was an odd duck more than anything.
posted by I Foody at 6:26 AM on February 23, 2007

Keith Schofield - Pi
posted by infinityjinx at 7:16 AM on February 23, 2007

plinth writes "I taught 7th graders basic engineering and they had to design, measure and build things to spec."

I want my kids to have plinth for grade seven. Cripes we have second year architecture students who need their hands held to do this.
posted by Mitheral at 8:13 AM on February 23, 2007

I remember memorizing poetry in younger grades. It was kind of fun because we got to recite the poems, so there was a class-performance aspect to it, which taught us other skills in addition to the memory stuff.

Learning how to memorize things can have many useful applications to students, whether it's memorizing lines for school plays, or studying for tests where the information can be somewhat random and not necessarily based on learning from understanding logic--such as biology.

However, I think there are definitely teachers out there who use memory-technique as a cop out for teaching. I had this exact experience in my Grade 10 and 11 English classes. I had the same teacher for both years, and she would test us on say, half of a Shakespearian monologue, where we would have to write out all the words, including punctuation. The fact that she included punctuation--which of course would have been completely different if we'd used a slightly older or newer edition of the play--unnecessarily emphasized its existence. She never taught us that the punctuation was very dependent on the edition we were using, she never taught us anything about the Folio, Shakespeare's fascinating use of punctuation, etc. In fact, I got even angrier with her because I was simultaneously learning about the Folio in my drama classes, so I knew exactly what the rest of the class was missing out on.

Additionally, we were being asked to do these ludicrous tests in our final years of high school.

My point is, some teachers are just lazy.
posted by Menomena at 8:21 AM on February 23, 2007

I had to learn the first 100 numbers of pi for my 5th grade math class. Granted that teacher was far from normal
posted by CAnneDC at 8:32 AM on February 23, 2007

I love the story of the teacher who (to keep them busy) had her math students add up all the numbers from one to 100. One little boy (who became a famous physicist--I think it was Wolfgang Pauli) was finished in less than a minute. He had the right answer, but the teacher, unconvinced, asked him how he got it. He had added one and 100, two and 99, three and 98, then realized there were fifty such pairs adding to 101. 5050.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:26 AM on February 23, 2007

Your teacher is nuts. Memorize your arithmetic facts, yes. But if you need more than 3.14159 you need a calculator and or a computer (in the old days, sliderule) to make sure the whatever-it-is is accurate anyway.

I am sorry but this bears no relationship to memorizing poetry or a song or play lines. All those things are in words, which make sense with one another in context. It seems to me that Psalm 23 (just for example) is about 50 words long, but I can use the words I know to get me through the next part. "I will fear no... [what might I fear? Oh! I know!] evil! [Why not? Because...] Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...." Knowing that digit #10 is x does not tell you anything about what digit #11 might be.

This doesn't even relate to memorizing arithmetic facts, because in a pinch you can always work them out. If you have 4 packages of 6 thingamajiggers, you can still physically count them and get 4X6=24. You memorize it to save time, but you can still calculate it. Joe Average does not have the ability to lay a diameter around a circle and hand cipher pi much beyond about 3 digits.

So your teacher is wasting time on a freaking party trick for geeks when she could be teaching you 6th Grade Math. And the principal is going to wonder why her classes' test scores suck.
posted by ilsa at 9:52 AM on February 23, 2007

In high school we had to memorize world geography. The teacher would give us a blank map of a continent with the political boundaries marked on it and we were tasked to annotate it with the names of countries and capitals from the map in our book. (We had to color it in too, which I still think is ridiculous for high school students.) A few weeks later we were handed the same map for a geography test. I hated this then, even though I knew it was useful. Looking back on it now it was one of the most useful things I learned in high school and use my knowledge daily.
posted by dreaming in stereo at 10:07 AM on February 23, 2007

I'm a reasonably bright guy but, for whatever reason, it requires many repetitions for me to remember a 7 digit phone number. There is no way I could memorize Pi to 52 digits. I'd still be in 6th grade math had I run up against this teacher. (I have a borderline metal deficient coworker who can recall 12 digit numbers after a single glance.) Makes me wonder if your teacher's memorization requirement might have had a serious negative impact on a few of her students over the years. I'd be surprised if I'm the only person who has extreme difficulty memorizing strings of numbers but has otherwise normal mental abilities.
posted by Carbolic at 11:27 AM on February 23, 2007

There is some supposed value in 'knowing how to memorize', but I think if I had taken that class I might just be convinced that I was no good at math and avoided it for the rest of my days.

I still remember a line from somthing I had to memorize for english class though:
'Quoth the Raven, Nevermore'
That's the only line I recall though...
posted by yohko at 1:21 PM on February 23, 2007

RE: helping students succeed vs allowing them to fail.

I have to say this theory sounds ridiculous. Yes, kids learn in different ways, and have different strengths. I was horrible at math because it was extremely difficult (still is) for me to simplify algebraic expressions.

Teaching kids different ways to do a task is a good idea. This way, many kids can all reach the same goal through whichever method is their strongest. Teaching kids unrelated things that achieve no goal is pointless. Kids who accomplish the 52-digit task succeed at nothing. At least, nothing math-related. Which, if you're teaching a math class, is the entire point.

You might as well have kids who can handle the pi stuff do pi, while the other kids color some line-art. Then, everybody passes, and you don't have to bastardize real math by equating it to memorization.

As others have said earlier, there are plenty of useful things you can memorize in all different areas of academia. Memorizing exponent rules, order of operations, trigonometric identities, etc. These are all important because they're short-hand to figuring everything out from scratch every time you need the tool.

The most important thing to teach, though, is that these rules all come from simple, applied logic. You can work out all of the trig. identities by applying logic to the unit circle, using geometry, and so on. Jumping straight to a list of the rules and then into memorization misses this critical fact, and is the reason so many kids feel like they fail at math - the logical jumps were never explained.
posted by odinsdream at 1:55 PM on February 23, 2007

In Japan every kid memorizes the calculations for 1*1 ~ 9*9 (and all 79 multiplications in between). This is still memorization, but it does have its use since having that basic 1-digit multiplication burned into your brain does (seem to) speed up arithmetics.

The times tables? We do that up to 12*12 in Australia, I thought it was done the world over.
posted by PuGZ at 9:50 PM on February 23, 2007

Teaching in the US is so onerous and underpaid that it is either a labor of love or a fall-back.

You had a fall-backer.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:28 AM on February 24, 2007

wish I could calculate pi. Eureka cried the great inventor. Christmas pudding, christmas pi pie. Is the problems very center

Fixed that for you :-)

See, I knew instantly that it was wrong, because 323 comes after 979, not 223.

odinsdream, I cruised through high school mathematics by working out all the trig stuff from first principles every time I had to use it, which saved me much laborious memorization of identities. Then I hit calculus, and my native cunning ran out of puff; I simply couldn't figure out all those integration forms by first principles any more, and I'd long given up learning stuff by rote. First year engineering mathematics was my complete undoing.

It wasn't until many years later that it occurred to me that the reason I was able to do so much first-principles cruising in high school was squarely because of the solid rote-learned foundation I had got in primary school. I had a battery of techique to draw on that Just Worked without having to be figured out every single time; and what I thought of as first principles, in the high school context, was probably more like fifty-seventh principles.

I am frequently appalled by how much time people who don't have a locked-in set of times-tables need to use up on what could be really simple stuff, and the extent to which this gets in their way when they need to be concentrating on picking up something new.

It's now my firm belief that effective mathematics learning needs a balance between the lovely, pleasing flash-of-insight stuff and repetitious rote grind; that rote grind is hopelessly out of fashion, and has been for at least twenty years; and that the need for the grind is not obvious to students who find themselves atypically subjected to it, and ought to be explained using analogies that make sense to them.

Crossing a swamp on carefully placed stepping stones is faster and easier than hacking through the mud; if we're going to need to cross the swamp every day, it's worth spending a week building stepping stones.

You wouldn't try to run the Boston Marathon without training up for it, and you shouldn't have to derive two centuries of hard-won calculus results from first principles to design a better heat engine.

And so on, and so forth.

It's the fact that inconsequentialist was apparently never told why the memorizing task was a good idea that I'd mark the teacher down for, not the memorizing task itself. Memorizing arbitrary stuff really is a learnable skill, and really does come easier with practice.
posted by flabdablet at 5:19 AM on February 25, 2007

PuGZ, I've often wondered why the times tables are generally taught to 12*12 here, and it seems to me that it's probably all down to pounds, shillings and pence and we probably shouldn't be doing it any more.

Clearly, nobody ought to waste time remembering 1* or 10* tables, because the rules for those are so trivial and so quick to apply that locking in tables results for them will be no quicker, and you need an instant grasp of the 10* rule anyway to deal with any kind of multi-digit arithmetic. To handle the rest of digit-by-digit multiplication, you need times tables from 2*2 to 9*9: this is only 64 little factoids to remember.

To include the elevens and twelves as well, you need another 36 little factoids - more than half as much effort again, for not much return. I'm sure more kids would actually be able to remember their times tables if the scope of the task was cut back to the essentials. For one thing, this would allow more time for teaching general memorization technique.
posted by flabdablet at 5:35 AM on February 25, 2007

RE: helping students succeed vs allowing them to fail.

I have to say this theory sounds ridiculous.

Odd that you would say so, because you then go on to propose ways that a good teacher does exactly that.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:33 PM on February 25, 2007

starvos; I was perhaps imprecise. I meant that creating simple tasks unrelated to the subject solely because you have students who can only accomplish this simple, unrelated task has no purpose.

That is, if I am teaching math, and I find some students are unable to learn addition in the manner I'm teaching it, the correct thing to do would be to offer multiple teaching methods that all end in teaching math. The wrong thing to do would be to give the smart kids an addition test and give the stupid kids a coloring book.
posted by odinsdream at 12:24 PM on February 26, 2007

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