Japanese “Magic Math”

Lifehacker posted an old video of an old technique, and it made Uncle Josh cry a little. The tears were not that this old video was being trotted out again like it was something new, or that on first read Ms. Pinola made it sound like this is how Japanese students actually multiply numbers. No, the tears come in the third paragraph:

I don’t know how or why this works. But it’s a pretty amazing trick and might make you wonder why we don’t teach math the way Japanese teachers do.

This isn’t magic, and it’s not anything special. It’s a technique used to illustrate how the various steps of multiplication work for visual learners. It is estimated by Aunt Stephanie that there are more visual learners than auditory or logical learners. (To be fair to Aunt Stephanie, she does not claim to have hard data to back this up, but she was also home in bed nursing herself to life when I asked.) I suspect that the Japanese, having a pictographic writing structure, probably have a few more visual learners by population than Americans. I do know that the Japanese overall structure takes more time with individual concepts, so students have true mastery over their subjects instead of the “master this by next week” mentality my education hit me with.

Standard math, as I learned it, works perfectly fine and simply does this trick without a bunch of lines and counting.  It does, however, include some of the sub-steps of multiplication of single digit multiplicands, which every student should be able to do by memory.

The comments to her post say much of the same thing: This isn’t new. This isn’t uniquely Japanese. This ain’t magic.

But it is sad that Ms. Pinola has to make it mysterious. To be fair to her, other writers have said this same thing: Jesus Diaz on Gizmodo (linking to the same video it appears) also writes:

Then I tried it and it works perfectly, but still can’t understand how it works—or how anyone found this method.

Oh, how I weep.

But my job is not to weep, but to explain, which I shall not do, because the inimitable Vi Hart has already done so:

Perhaps if we didn’t rush our math students to test taking strategies and taught them mathematics, we wouldn’t have this kind of stuff floating around.

  • See http://www.learning-styles-online.com/overview/ for more information about learning styles.
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About Uncle Josh

I am a genre writer from the Great Metropolitan Rain Forest.

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