Willingham on Automaticity

Some solid thoughts from Daniel Willingham on the need for automaticity in basic mathematics skills (re: automatic-algebra.org) from his article "Is It True That Some People Just Can't Do Math?" (American Educator, Winter 2009-2010):

In its recent report, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel argued that learning mathematics requires three types of knowledge: factual, procedural, and conceptual. Let’s take a close look at each.

Factual knowledge refers to having ready in memory the answers to a relatively small set of problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The answers must be well learned so that when a simple arithmetic problem is encountered (e.g., 2 + 2), the answer is not calculated but simply retrieved from memory. Moreover, retrieval must be automatic (i.e., rapid and virtually attention free). This automatic retrieval of basic math facts is critical to solving complex problems because complex problems have simpler problems embedded in them. For example, long division problems have simpler subtraction problems embedded in them. Students who automatically retrieve the answers to the simple subtraction problems keep their working memory (i.e., the mental “space” in which thought occurs) free to focus on the bigger long division problem. The less working memory a student must devote to the subtraction subproblems, the more likely that student is to solve the long division problem.

This interpretation of the importance of memorizing math facts is supported by several sources of evidence. First, it is clear that before they are learned to automaticity, calculating simple arithmetic facts does indeed require working memory. With enough practice, however, the answers can be pulled from memory (rather than calculated), thereby incurring virtually no cost to working memory. Second, students who do not have math facts committed to memory must instead calculate the answers, and calculation is more subject to error than memory retrieval. Third, knowledge of math facts is associated with better performance on more complex math tasks. Fourth, when children have difficulty learning arithmetic, it is often due, in part, to difficulty in learning or retrieving basic math facts. One would expect that interventions to improve automatic recall of math facts would also improve proficiency in more complex mathematics. Evidence on this point is positive but limited, perhaps because automatizing factual knowledge poses a more persistent problem than difficulties related to learning mathematics procedures

Get the whole article by Willingham (including citations for all the claims above) at the AFT website.