An 11-year-old student of mine has excellent mental calculation skills. It has never been a problem for him to multiply 34 by 16 or subtract 3479 from 5025 quickly and efficiently, if a task requires him to do that.
A few months ago his school started preparing the children for the new primary mathematics test. As in every other school in the country, the students did countless sample tests, practising written methods of calculation again and again, at speed and with full workings shown as a proof.
With tests completed last week, children can now breathe a sigh of relief. But the damage has been done: the boy does not do mental calculations any more. Not at all. When asked to divide 568 by 2, he does the “bus-stop” division, which is way below his skill level. He does not even try to think whether it would be faster to work out the answer mentally. The flexibility of manipulating the numbers in a way that is most suitable for a calculation at hand, the valuable skill that he used to possess, is gone. And I can only hope that, with my encouragement and his effort, it will return.