The Surprising Joy of Mental Calculation
Updated: Jul 28
Like many at age 18, I wasn´t really sold on what to do for a career. What I did know, was that I wanted to become completely independent, quickly. My goals for the next few years were to move out of home (asap) and be a uni student. I´d have to work to pay the bills, so I did. Out of several part-time jobs, the best paying was as a gaming room attendant.
I spent a few years working various, insane hours. The worst of course was the graveyard shift. This usually started at 7:30pm and working through til 4:30am. While it feels like a life time ago, when I think and talk about mental calculation and its importance, I often remember what it was like to be balancing as the cashier throughout a shift and then the big balancing all of the books at the end of the night. I remember it was a complete drag every time. My process relied solely on using rote-learnt algorithms and the calculator which was essentially a crutch. This, despite being a VCE Maths Methods graduate...
Over time, I moved from hospitality to education. By 2010 I was a fully qualified primary teacher, working full time in a school. It wasn´t until teaching Year 4, that I started developing a different relationship with, and approach to, numbers. It was in the curriculum to teach mental strategies like the ´split´ and ´compensation´ strategies. The teaching experience here was almost...mind-blowing.
Not only did the students start to think about, and have a choice regarding, how they approached different calculations - they started having preferred strategies. I remember one student coming to school the day after we explored the ´jump strategy´. She had with her a purple poster completely jam-packed with number problems solved using the jump strategy. All of her own accord. She´d clearly found a strategy that made sense, that worked and that was joyful, for her.
I also started approach day to day calculations in this way. How empowering it is to be able to rely on my human brain alone. I´ve well-abandoned the old-fashioned algorithm purely for the fact it doesn´t bring me joy to use it. And using my own processes does.
Later when I discovered number talks for teaching maths ideas, it´s value was immediately obvious. It´s become one of my favourite maths routines which fits easily in as a daily learning event. They´re quickly becoming the best part of the day for many maths learners. And teachers!