Math and memory

Written on August 29, 2020

6 min. read

When I was a child, I did not like multiplication tables. I used to quickly add and tell the answers to the questions from tables. Somehow from the people around me, I got the impression that is mugging up tables is a bad idea. I was good in Math, in our school syllabus. Now I use a calculator in the system or mobile to multiple even small amounts.

Rote learning is the process of learning something by repeating it until you remember it rather than by understanding the meaning of it.

We hate to remember something without understanding it. This attitude is cultivated in us, by the environment we are exposed to.

This generally tends to come from the following, in my experience. The math I understand, so nothing to rote learn or mug it up. Now Hindi, I don’t understand, so I need to remember the answer. Trying to remember paragraphs of text without understanding is painful, which I personally know it. Try to remember things like these is a painful process. We want to avoid such things. So we conclude, we should never follow a process to remember things.

This really muddied the thinking process. We have a mind with a few gifted capabilities. Still, we tend to use only some of those capabilities because of our miss understandings.

We somehow hate rote learning. But we miss understanding how a child naturally (without instruction) learns to speak. In the process, when you carefully observe, he repeats the sounds he hears, without understanding. Only by repeatedly making the sound, he could remember the sounds spoken by adults and children around. And later associate with a meaning to the sound.

Our memory and vocal systems are capable of remembering and producing a wide range of sounds. Let’s call this full range of sound a human being can create, which also means inherently he could remember the sounds as well. The mind could remember all sounds in the hearing range. But we slowly reduce the scope of sounds that we can produce. To clearly understand, let’s take an example of Carnatic music and vocal and songs. There are nuances to these which children before learning the language’s vocabulary can easily remember them and reproduce them. Slowly as most of the time, it’s in words from the vocabulary we use. Here, they lose the ability to remember these different ways of creating sound in the songs and vocal. So we restrict the kids and population to a smaller range, from the full range of sounds they could produce. When you don’t use it, you will lose it. It’s for the mind, muscle and any capability of our minds or body. So essentially, children learn the words in any language through rote learning.

Now let’s move on to the actual part. What about the things that we understand and try to remember, for quick access. What will you gain with quick access to some computations, which you can do as well? This is not rote learning by definition, because we know how to compute it and understand the process and everything. For example, when a child starts adding a few things, he might use a finger, notebook, or other means. But as he grows, he could quickly tell the sum of two single-digit numbers. In a way, he memorizes them.

But what if we make them do manually add few numbers and then, once we know they understand, we make them remember for quick access. We make them remember the following.
2 + 2 = 4
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 3 = 6

Remember all combinations of single digits addition. We can make the process fun or simply be totally involved with children by yourself doing it. They will just follow you with joy. Check out this process of multiplying large numbers quickly. Visualising Fast Multiplications - How do I do it? - World’s Fastest Human Calculator.

Multiplication tables are nothing but quick access for the computation process of adding them. You understand the process and you know how to do it. But now you could remember the tables and provide an answer for a quick response. Your mind’s capability will be of use and you will not lose it.

Some people have really worked out the process in detail. They could first create their own notes for each subject in the school in a way that could be easily remembered in mind. Later in the lifetime, they could recollect them with ease. In the school, they do this in the first 4 months and the rest of the year is spent on revision and putting time for other useful life activities. The entire school in Vizag follows this process. But first, they understand them and prepare them into a structure of notes that they could remember for life. And follow the procedure to remember it.

Coming back to multiplication tables, some people ask till what we need to remember. Like till 6 X10, or till 6 X 12 or till 6 X 20? I always used to prefer until 12 times, but not until 20 times. But if we can do it till 20 times. Then we can make them remember till 20 times 20. All combinations. But what if we make them remember till 30 times 30, all combinations? Someone said that the working memory size will be increased, something like this. And one of the great software developers told me that his teacher observed that he is capable of a large memory set size. So he made him learn until a larger multiplication range. Something to remember for quick access, which you understood by slow computation, is nothing wrong.

For example, learning Sanskrit Slokas, as a child is the best thing that can happen to a child. Here are some rational points.

  • The ability of our vocal capability is completely used.
  • Schools in the US and UK make children recite Sanskrit Slokas because they found that it is having a remarkable impact on the children’s brain. Here is an example St James Schools in London.

Rote learning how I did for mugging up answers for Hindi questions and answers in school is wrong. You need to understand and then write the answers, so life would be simple.

Rote learning the dates of history for Social Studies teacher is not wrong.

Rote learning the sounds, either in language or songs or Slokas or vocals, is the only way you have. You cannot understand something here. You can slowly find patterns in them, later.

Not understanding our mind for exploiting its capabilities, but using it by brute force is the real stupidity.