numeracy numerical flexibility reflection

Vedic Maths: Lipstick on a Pig

I was alerted to this video by a pre-service teacher that helps in my room every week. Before this post makes any sense, you should watch the video below. Try to watch the whole thing–I found that task very difficult.

As I watched, I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed with the topic. The presenter claims that the problem with current  mathematics is the algorithms that we teach. Ironically, he couples this solution with a boring lecture complete with lack luster audience polling, inadequate wait times, and dry humour. I imagine that a lot of what is wrong with math education can be pulled from his very presentation.

While I was watching, I was reminded of two phrases that have become part of my every day worldview.

The first is a quote from President Obama during his first run for election. (Yes, even us Canadians follow some American politics.) Although education only makes a cameo in the speech, the message rings true for change in any capacity. Obama accuses Republican promises as identical policies with different names and goes on to inform the audience that “you can put lipstick on a pig.” (retrieved from YouTube )

To truly create a measurable gain in holistic numeracy across the world, educators need to undercut the surface gimmicks and stop putting makeup on pigs.

The second quote comes from a small but potent book on mathematics education written by Paul Lockhart called A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form. This book is a staple on many educators’ shelves. 

While musing on the tendency of school to get caught up in notation, he remarks that “it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!” (p. 37). Education so often becomes a battle between frivolous things; in this case, it has become a war over which mindless–and preset–algorithms produce the best math scores.

With all of that said, there are three reasons why I feel that Vidic Maths is not revolutionary for math education:

It’s spearheaded in a corporate manner

People with business degrees trying to push products in education scare me. It seems–from this presentation–that those behind the “system” of Vidic Maths are out to distribute their algorithms for profit. What scares me further is the fact that he bothered to mention the legal struggles he went through to gain the right to mathematics. Mathematics belongs to no one; You cannot take a patent out on deep understanding. He has attempted to take base-10 manipulation and claim that he invented its patterns and caveats. I chalk them up to nothing more than the hidden and beautiful patterns that emerge throughout mathematics. 
The presentation spends very little time on meaning
I put myself in a student’s shoes while he flashes the slide with the number theory logic behind the trick. The slide was shown for under two seconds. He does the same thing with the other “trick”. The focus of Vidic Maths is not understanding. In fact, the focus is on the exact opposite. The collection of tricks is designed to be memorized and correctly implemented. The whole time, comments like, “easy, isn’t it?”(2:21) push instruction forward. The description of the video calls the method the “High Speed Vidic Maths” method. Same empty understanding, just faster. (Even that is debatable).
The method feigns numerical flexibility
This one stings me the most. People will look at this guy and think that he has a great understanding of how numbers work and interact, when really he is parroting. All that Vidic Maths accomplishes is the replacement of a long, yet robust, algorithm with a series of shorter, less versatile ones. Actually, it eliminates what little mathematical sense we did have in the old multiplication algorithm. Now we have many more mindless manipulations to complete. Also notice that the presenter still uses the language of the “inefficient” system. He speaks of “carrying” (2:13) in his example. A topic that is born from the understanding of the traditional algorithm. 
At the six minute mark, he mocks a student’s method of multiplying eight by seven. Although the student miscounted their circles, they show an understanding of what multiplication is by drawing out sets of circles and then counting. Such learning is much more valuable, applicable, and transferable to a society that is in a mathematical crisis. Vidic Maths doesn’t teach the beauty of our base-10 system, it exploits it and renders it unthinkably rigid. 
I believe that basic math skills need to be built up through the deep understanding of numerical flexibility. In other words, I would love students to understand why the processes they use to arrive at answers work. Vidic Maths creates more problems than solutions. Instead of focusing on the mechanisms behind the methods, they promote the rote memorization of more facts. Unfortunately, these rules work in very limited capacities. (Multiplying two numbers close to a power of ten, or multiplying two digit numbers by eleven, etc.)
Unless taught with a focus on understanding the mechanisms, Vidic Maths is reduced to yet another way we can teach students to follow directions in stead of creating directions. 
Note: My full impression of the system comes from this video. I can envision a system of education which uses understanding of these methods as a launchpad into deep understanding. Such a system is not portrayed in any shape, way, or form in the video. 

One reply on “Vedic Maths: Lipstick on a Pig”

I didn't watch the whole thing. I'll trust you on what you said about it. The odd thing is, a homeschooling mom raved about Vedic math because it felt more holistic to her than what she'd grown up with. She wrote a chapter for my book, Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers, titled "The Math Haters Come Around". I'd be happy to share it with you if you email me at mathanthologyeditor on gmale (misspelling to try to beat the spambots, ya know). I'd be interested in your opinion of her piece.

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