How to Use Flashcards when Teaching Math

Siggi over at Turkeydoodles wrote a post about her preference of calculators over flashcards. It’s her preference, but her arguments seem to be founded on the misuse of of flashcards. Furthermore, it seems she’s not seen the detrimental effects of early calculator use, yet.

When you should give a kid a calculator is a topic for another article. In the meantime, here are some tips on good flash card usage.

Flashcards are educational toys.

Flashcards shouldn’t be used as testing devices. They’re educational toys. They’re exploratory devices. Let them “peek” as much as they want.

As a first introduction, use them to build houses of cards. They should be fun and comfortable.

They are limited in scope.

The 6 x 8 = 48 card will never be able to give the cosine of 60 degrees. This makes the flashcards so beautiful. Once you understand what happens when you create a calculator addict, and see how that works as the kid enters college, you’ll know how important this limitation is.

Encourage variation to limit boredom.

I distinctly remember using flashcards in my dining room, sitting next to the sliding glass door. I was reading them. But because they would get boring, I would chant them. It became sing-songy and fun. I could go through them quickly this way.

And I looked forward to the ones that rhymed.

Let the flashcards be rejected.

If a kid really hates them, let it go. There are other ways to get that information across. Schoolhouse Rock’s Multiplication Rock is a fabulous tool for this.

And you can sing or chant multiplication facts yourself. My mother learned the most common prepositions by saying them as she jumped rope. You can vary some skip counting with jumping rope to learn multiplication facts:

  • 3 x 1 = 3
  • 3 x 2 = 6
  • 3 x 3 = 9
  • and so on…

Allow the flashcards to be the context in and of itself.

It is not necessary that math be learned in context. So many people keep pushing this. Sometimes it’s just fun to know random stuff – including some quick and nifty facts.

Don’t push math for math’s sake, but offer it. There are kids, lots of them, who just like to do puzzles. Plain math – arithmetic and facts – is a great puzzler.

What do you think? Is this a better use of flashcards than the ones you’ve seen? Share your thoughts in the comments.



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9 Responses to How to Use Flashcards when Teaching Math

  1. If a child WANTS to learn their math facts by heart, I certainly promote their doing so, and using whatever tools they like; what I disparage is educators *demanding* that they do so. If flashcards are offered as toys that a child can use *by themselves*, and without external pressure for mastery, then go for it. Creating the cards themselves would be even more valuable.

    • Thanks, Siggi, for the continuing conversation.

      Indeed, making the cards would be of great value. Listening to “Multiplication Rock” while doing so – even better.

      I think we continue to be on the same team with different uniforms. 🙂

  2. I’m puzzled by what you claim that Dan Meyer is “pushing.” Much of Dan’s work in regard to context is in direct response to the overuse of supposed contexts (i.e. “pseudocontext”) in mainstream math teaching.

    • Indeed, the pseudocontext found in textbooks is annoying. Note my response to Dan’s comment. I have erred in my placement of the link, as I don’t think he is pushing it directly. Merely his compelling manner might lead others to believe that it’s the best way, just as Sal Kahn’s movement has been interpreted as the clear winner in math teaching in many’s eyes.

      I meant only to link to his use of context (the real version) as opposed to math for math sake.

      And thanks for your comment!

    • Thanks for your comment, Dan!

      In re-reading what I have wrote, I have indeed implied that you suggest math must be learned in context. My link referring to you should have been placed elsewhere (which I have since adjusted).

      My point is that your “What can you do with this?” posts and style could be easily interpreted by others as the “right way” because it really looks awesome. And feels great. It appeals to curiosity, taps into science and gets kids (and grown ups) engaged. And you’re compelling, personally. So others might infer that math must be learned in context from your work.

      Indeed, the first time I watched a video of yours and then listened to your talk on it I felt like this was the best way to teach math.

      And then I thought about it. I don’t do word problems. I think they’re dumb and completely useless. But that’s probably because I enjoy math for math’s sake. And always have. Even as a kid.

      I think it is important to appeal to all sides (available) of a kid. Flashcards, calculators, videos (like yours or like Kahn’s), puzzles, toys, bugs, numbers, cookies, plastic eyeballs, and anything else you can get your hands on, should all be in every math coach’s tool box.

      • So I’m curious then who all these people are who keep pushing the idea that math must be learned in context. Maybe a link to their work would be more appropriate than to mine. Assuming they exist, of course.

        • Are you offended that I’ve linked to your blog? The post to which it is linked is indeed offering math in context.

          My sights are on the readers: homeschool teachers, classroom teachers and tutors of math. A link to show them how math is done in context is appropriate and valuable in this post.

          • I’m not offended. I’m just curious about this vast group of individuals who push the idea that math must be learned in context. Who are they? Where do they blog? Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a link or two.

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