One of Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin's pet peeves is the common “division is repeated addition” meme . He despises it so much he has something like a mantra, “Repeat after me. Division is NOT repeated addition.” Naturally, math teachers give him a lot of pushback because division is indeed repeated addition (except when it's not).
It seems there are actually two topics in play here. 1) Multiplication as repeated addition and 2) the skill of elementary math teachers. I completely understand his frustration with prospect of undoing the poor math instruction college students typically receive during their elementary school years. I also experience the same frustration as a secondary and college level instructor.
Multiplication as repeated addition is not a definition of multiplication, even though many elementary math teachers erroneously think the definition of multiplication is precisely repeated addition. Repeated addition is merely another name for the group model of multiplication. There are other models, such as the array model, the area model and the number line model, to name the ones most commonly presented to elementary students. Devlin rightly maintains that it is inaccurate to say that multiplication is repeated addition, period. As a misleading misstatement, it is right up there with “you cannot subtract a bigger number from a smaller number.”
However, as properly taught (a giant qualifier, I know), the group model is merely the first element in a teaching sequence which eventually progresses to the area model, then to the use of the area model to multiply fractions, and beyond. For example, you can definitely model a positive whole number times a negative rational number on the number line where it very much looks like repeated addition of the given negative number. Turn that number line vertically, and it makes even more sense to students because it reminds them of another number line they are very familiar with, the thermometer.
Devlin writes, “Addition and multiplication are different operations on numbers. There are, to be sure, connections. One such is that multiplication does provide a quick way of finding the answer to a repeated addition sum.” Exactly, and this is precisely the way a good teacher presents the group model. Children sometimes ask questions like, “Instead of saying 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 8, and then saying the answer, can't we just say “8, five times” and then say the answer?” Of course we can, and that is what we do when we say 5 x 8 = 40. The group model is meant to express this particular connection between addition and multiplication. The group model is not meant to be a definition of multiplication. Nevertheless, I agree there are too many elementary math teachers who fail to make the distinction, or properly progress through the models.
An umbrella idea I like involves the word “of” as an English language expression of multiplication. We can say “5 groups of 3,” or “5 groups of -3,” or “1/2 of 3,” or “1/3 of 4/5,” or “16/100 of 40” or “75% of 200,” etc and neatly cover most examples of multiplication that children are likely to encounter before junior high. Devlin prefers scaling as the dominant meme and argues that children should readily understand scaling because examples of scaling surround them. The problem is most eight-year-olds have difficulty comprehending scaling as a model and effect of multiplication. Even though they can readily see that a scale model is a perfect replica of the original, they do not understand how it is possible that doubling the dimensions of a garden (to take a simple example) results in a garden four times larger. Most of the scaling children see is usually on maps where the scale is for them an unimaginably large (or small, depending on viewpoint) number.
Teachers are better off working their way up to the scalar model of multiplication. I have found this is best done by reminding younger students early and often with the idea that we have not yet exhausted the possible models and applications of multiplication. I have found it useful to show some examples of these applications, and say something like, “Later you will learn how you can use multiplication to produce an exact scale model, or use multiplication to produce a real-life-sized object from a scale model.”
Actually, most students get their first solid grip on scaling when they work with similar figures (typically triangles) during high school geometry. Personally, I have found success with older elementary students by giving them basic practice in scaling on the coordinate plane or increasing recipe yield and other types of problems. Students also enjoy the products of their work whether it be art or good eats. The number line model is also a good introduction to scaling because you are scaling only one dimension, as opposed to the two and three dimensions involved in scaling area and volume, respectively.
Devlin also laments the constant push to make math “real.”
No wonder children arrive at college not only having little or no genuine understanding of elementary arithmetic, they have long ago formed the view that math has nothing to do with the world they live in...many people feel a need to make things concrete. But mathematics is abstract. That is where it gets its strength.
His comments seem contradictory, but they are not. One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching math is showing students the leap from concrete to abstract. For example, I love showing students a cube and showing them the edge e, the face e x e, then showing them cube e x e x e. I usually let the idea hang, and love when someone asks if I can show e x e x e x e on the cube. No, I answer, I have nothing to show them that. And therein lies the power of math. Math can help us express ideas we can understand, but for which we have no physical representation. I am thrilled when someone asks if e x e x e x e can be time. I ask what would e x e x e x e then express. The children are really products of this century, and one of them is likely to answer, “the coordinates of a time-traveling spaceship.” So much fun. One time, a child said, “Maybe someday we will have a real meaning for more es.”
To the extent that teachers present repeated addition as a property, which in some applications, connects the operations of addition and multiplication, no harm done. However, considering repeated addition as THE definition of multiplication is a serious problem, and Devlin is right to be concerned about it. As Denise Gaskins pointed out, “...if (a particular) model doesn’t work universally, then (the model) certainly cannot be used to define the operation.”
Devlin asks an interesting, and in today's pedagogical environment, nearly taboo question:
The "learn the technique first and understand later" approach is very definitely the only way to learn chess, and millions of children around the world manage that each year, so we know it is a viable approach. Why not accept that math has to be learned the same way?
I would say that technique over understanding has been the preferred approach for centuries, but by all accounts, many adults have never made it to the “understand later” stage. In my experience teaching concept concurrently with technique works the best. The problem I am seeing is that these days too many elementary teachers attempt to teach concepts they barely understand, and then give short shrift to technique because the kids have calculators for that. The result is legions of kids who not only have faulty understanding of the concept, but also lack the ability to perform the technique quickly and accurately.