In February, a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things interview with Joe Hudy was posted on the Make blog where he shares projects, experiences, tools and people that inspire him. In response to the tools he can’t live without question, Joey says “my calculator watch because I don’t know my multiplication and division tables.” This is a 16 year old who doesn’t know his math facts.

You might be thinking “Terrible, not knowing his multiplication and division tables at age 16!” Well, think again, Joey was recently named one of the 10 Smartest Kids in the World (And the Crazy Math Problems They Can Solve).

How does a kid who admittedly does not know multiplication and division tables get named one of the top ten smartest kids in the world?

My hunch lies in how he applies math as opposed to how school teaches math. Nearly all math is taught and problems are presented in abstract forms. Typically, math is taught in sequential and increasingly difficult series of skills and courses. Always preparing for the next level or concept with nary a meaningful use in sight. “You’ll need it in middle school” is not good enough. What Joey has done is make the math he uses concrete, applied to the projects he designs and makes. I’m quite sure he has collaborators and teachers who help him figure out what he needs to know and do. When the time comes for using math, he uses the tool he finds best, his calculator watch. It’s not hard to imagine Joey coming to a problem, lifting his wrist, punching a few keys, finding an answers and moving on to the next step in a real project.

So why do we fret over math tables? What’s the real purpose of memorizing math facts? Do the benefits truly outweigh the consequences of emphasizing math facts to young children?