Interview with Alex Kajitani

Acclaimed Math Teacher and Creator of

March 7, 2017
Email Interview with Alex Kajitani

Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year and a Top-4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year. He has been teaching elementary and middle school math for 15 years.

Alex first rose to fame as “The Rappin’ Mathematician,” but since then he has earned even greater fame for his popular TED-Talk (Making Math Cool), for his having been honored at The White House, and for his having been featured on The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

Today he is a highly sought-after speaker, an acclaimed author, and the creator of

What is is a first-of-its-kind, interactive, online training program designed to help EVERY kid master their times tables, so they can be confident in math and in life.

How did this mission to get EVERY kid to master their times tables begin?

Over the past four years, I’ve been traveling around the United States, speaking at education conferences and leading professional development for teachers and administrators. I always ask, “What is your biggest challenge with teaching math?”

Overwhelmingly, educators tell me that their biggest challenge is that so many students don’t know their times tables, and this makes it extremely difficult to teach anything beyond third grade. They tell me that they’re constantly having to choose between slowing down to teach the times tables, or go ahead with the curriculum that many of the students aren’t fully grasping, due to this gap.

Is this gap something that you’ve seen in your own experiences as a teacher

Absolutely. I’ve taught math at all different levels, from elementary through high school. I can tell you with utmost confidence that the students who have mastered their times tables have a much easier time keeping up, and succeeding in math. Those who have not mastered them really struggle, and quickly lose confidence. It’s similar to being able to read well in English class — it’s the foundation that makes all the difference!

At the same time, not passing Algebra is one of the main academic reasons that students drop out of school. So we can’t let kids slip through elementary and high school without mastering their times tables. If we could get EVERY student to master their time tables, it would be a game-changer for our education system. And it can be done!

Why do you think so many kids haven’t mastered this skill?

There really are a lot of reasons. As teachers, we often teach classes with 30 or more students, and it’s tough to give every student the individual attention that they need. As parents, we’re busy with work and life, and it’s hard to find the time to sit down with our kids and practice their flashcards.

And, let’s be honest — with all of the distractions that are available to us these days, a lot of kids aren’t exactly excited to learn their times tables. Nobody argues when I talk about how important this skill is; but actually getting it done is a different story!

So how did come to be born?

I wanted to confront this problem on two levels: in the classroom, and at home. As a teacher, I often tried to make sure all my kids mastered their times tables. However, it often became a management nightmare. Trying to keep track of which students knew which facts, finding time to teach them the concepts behind why and how we use multiplication, and sitting down to do flashcards could make any teacher crazy!

I was fortunate to team up with LightSpeed Virtual Technologies, a leader in creating online trainings, in order to build a program that any student could use in any school or home, on any web-enabled device. The video lessons are interactive and engaging, and we utilize several strategies — including great visuals, music, movement, and more. And yes, it includes some “rote memorization,” but in a way that is encouraging and fun for the students.

How do you respond to people who question why we even need to have students memorize their times tables, since everyone has a calculator in their pocket these days?

Having a calculator doesn’t help if you don’t understand the concept of why you’re using multiplication. When it comes to math facts, there are certainly those that think you can either have them memorized, or just use a calculator. In reality, it’s not an either or; it’s an either AND. I can use EITHER my mind, or I can use a calculator, AND I need to know which is going to get me the answer most efficiently.

It’s not about whether or not kids should use a calculator; the point is that they should know WHEN they need to use a calculator. For example, if they need to set up chairs for a room with 56 people, they should know that they can make 8 rows of 7 chairs. But, if they’re at the store, and want to buy something for $17.99 with a 15% discount, they should know that they can grab their calculator and figure it out.

If you don’t know that you can make 8 rows of 7 chairs, having a calculator won’t help you, and if you don’t know to use multiplication when calculating a discount, having a calculator doesn’t really matter!

What is the best way to get kids excited about math?

The key is flipping the script. Instead of trying to force the curriculum into our students’ lives, and then try to convince them that it is cool and important, we need to start with the students’ lives, and see where their lives fit into the curriculum.

I love to play a game with my students, where I challenge them to try to find something that doesn’t have anything to do with math. If they can stump me, they can win a prize. They bring up everything from ketchup to soccer to parakeets, and so far, I’ve never been stumped! When we start with the students’ lives, and then move into the math content, the students are more connected, bought in, and excited to learn.

Getting kids excited is one thing, but what about helping them become confident math thinkers?

A lot of times, we think we need to get kids confident first, and then they’ll be able to achieve in math. However, this is often not the case. Instead, we need to first get students a bit of competence, and then they start to develop the confidence.

I had an opportunity to observe my own daughter, who was struggling with math when she was in the third grade. She never volunteered to answer a question, and spent much of her time hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on her. I started working with her on memorizing her times tables, and a month later, when I went back in to observe, she was raising her hand to offer answers, and was much more engaged in the lessons. In short, she was becoming more confident, because she had started to gain the competence she needed.

Any closing thoughts/remarks?

I hope everyone will help me on my mission to get EVERY kid to master their times tables. Whether you use, or another approach, this is a challenge that we as educators must address, and a problem we can solve!

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