Maths – Why Faster Isn’t Smarter

Maths - Why Faster Isn't Smarter

Although both my kids are good at maths, neither of them do well under time pressure. I can relate – they get their relatively slow processing speeds from me. We enjoy mulling over puzzles, not quick-fire quizzes.

So I was immediately drawn to  Faster Isn’t Smarter: Messages about Math, Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century,  a collection of essays about teaching maths, when I saw it recommended by one of my favourite maths authors.

Faster Isn’t Smarter is set out as 41 independent messages that can be read in any order.  I personally read the whole book from start to finish on a Turkish beach (back in October, not last week – shame). I came home inspired and enthusiastic to continue our living maths adventures.

Here are a few of the many ideas I took from the book:

Faster isn’t smarter

The book’s eponymous essay, Faster Isn’t Smarter: The Trap of Timed Tests, talks about how some of the world’s greatest thinkers, scientists and mathematicians weren’t fast at arithmetic, but went on to be very successful at higher-level maths.

Maths - Why Faster Isn't Smarter

This message paves the way for a discussion about what skills are important for mathematical thinking.

Depth over breadth

In Seven Steps Toward Being a Better Math Teacher, the author suggests that most maths curricula try to cover too many topics in one year, leading to superficial coverage and little depth.  To counteract this, she advises maths teachers to identify priority topics for each grade level.

As homeschoolers we’re free to choose what our children learn, when, and how. Faster Isn’t Smarter‘s “depth over breadth” discussion has encouraged me to do what feels right for our family, despite the extensive list of topics presented in schools each year.

This doesn’t mean we have to stay on one topic for months. It just means we don’t have to rush from one topic to the next in order to get through vast amounts of material at a pace dictated by someone who doesn’t know how the individuals in our family learn best.

For example, C(10) and I spent several months exploring fractions. During our journey we played with multiples and factors, prime numbers, multiplication table tricks and probability – all led by C(10)’s interest.

She’s now using Math Mammoth worksheets to consolidate her knowledge of multiplication facts and division procedures. Most curricula would do this the other way around, teaching the facts before their fancier applications. But because we are not trying to check off a long list of other topics this year, we were able to work in the way that best suited C(10).

Knowledge is not the same as creativity

The chapter Creativity: An overlooked element in school mathematics observes that it’s not enough to teach mathematical facts and processes. Children need something more to equip them with the creativity and innovation skills they will need in the 21st century workplace.

Knowledge must blend with:

(1) “How the person approaches problems (critical thinking or problem-solving skills)”


(2) “The person’s motivation to be creative (especially intrinsic interest and passion)”

before we have a student who knows how to think creatively.

As homeschoolers we have the luxury of being able to spend at least as much time developing our children’s problem-solving strategies and stimulating their interest in maths as we do providing access to knowledge.

When we’re not trying to get through a hefty curriculum or long list of topics each year, we have time to play with the kind of mathematically relevant puzzles and games used by the best maths teachers throughout history.

These are exactly the kind of activities that, in our family, were too often pushed aside as “extras” back in the days when we used a maths curriculum.

A balanced mathematics program

Another essay I found especially useful was A 21st-Century View of a Balanced Mathematics Program, which describes how we can help children develop the skills to:

  • make sense of maths (understand concepts and ideas)
  • do maths (know facts and how to perform skills) and
  • use maths (solve a wide range of problems and apply the maths they’ve learned).
Faster Isn't Smarter
The author concludes by encouraging readers to combine the ideas from Faster Isn’t Smarter with other ideas in our communities. She calls for visionary, ambitious thinking and positive, connected actions to take on some of the greatest challenges in mathematics and in education in general.As homeschoolers we’re not weighed down by the bureaucracy that hinders schoolteachers from responding effectively to these challenges.  I’d recommend this very readable book to any parent in search of some fresh maths inspiration – whether you are homeschooling or supporting your child outside school.


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* This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I bought my own copy of Faster Isn’t Smarter and wasn’t paid for this review.


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