Currently, with the adoption and implementation of the Common Core math standards, there has been increased emphasis and focus on students showing “understanding” of the conceptual underpinnings of algorithms and problem-solving procedures. Instead of adding multi-digit numbers using the standard algorithm and learning alternative strategies after mastery of that algorithm is achieved, students must do the opposite. That is, they are required to use inefficient strategies that purport to provide the “deep understanding” when they are finally taught to use the more efficient standard algorithm. The prevailing belief is that to do otherwise is to teach by rote without understanding. Students are also being taught to reproduce explanations that make it appear they possess understanding — and more importantly, to make such demonstrations on the standardized tests that require them to do so.
Such an approach is tantamount to saying, “If we can just get them to do things that look like what we imagine a mathematician does, then they will be real mathematicians.” Forcing students to think of multiple ways to solve a problem, for example, or to write an explanation for how they solved a problem or why something works does not in and of itself cause understanding. It is investment in the wrong thing at the wrong time.
The “explanations” most often will have little mathematical value and are naïve because students don’t know the subject matter well enough. The result is at best a demonstration of “rote understanding” — it is a student engaging in the exercise of guessing (or learning) what the teacher wants to hear and repeating it. At worst, it undermines the procedural fluency that students need.
Understanding, critical thinking, and problem solving come when students can draw on a strong foundation of domain content relevant to the topic being learned. As students (non-Learning Disabled as well as Learning Disabled) establish a larger repertoire of mastered knowledge and methods, the more articulate they become in explanations.
While some educators argue that procedures and standard algorithms are “rote”, they fail to see that exercising procedures to solve problems requires reasoning with such procedures — which in itself is a form of understanding. This form of understanding is particularly significant for students with LD, and definitely more useful than requiring explanations that students do not understand for procedures they cannot perform.