Photo courtesy of jin.thai

When I do interviews or speak to groups about math, one of the things I worry about is that people will expect me to do math tricks. And I worry about this for good reason. I can’t multiply two three-digit numbers in my head. I don’t know π to the 100th decimal place. Heck, I can’t always remember what 9 x 8 is!

There are plenty of folks out there who have these abilities, and god bless ‘em. It’s not my schtick. In fact, while I think these tricks are pretty nifty, I’m not so keen on people learning them, at the expense of gaining a deeper understanding of the math behind them. This goes for kids and adults.

This is what I write about in one my first posts as the math expert for MSN.com’s site for parents, Mom’s Homeroom. Over the next several months, I’ll write articles and develop activities designed to give parents the tools they need to help their kids succeed in math. (Other experts address reading, social skills, homework and study habits and parental involvement.) One of my first posts, 5 Cool Math Tricks You Didn’t Know, looks at some neat shortcuts for basic math facts — like multiplying any number by 11 or finding out if a number is divisible by 3.

The twist is that I show readers why these tricks work. But this is a step that most folks skip altogether. My friend, Felice Shore, who is an assistant professor and co-assistant chair of Towson University’s math department, explains why it’s critical to master the math behind the magic.

“The important mathematics [in third and fourth grade] is still about building understanding of relationships between numbers — the very reasons behind math facts. Once you show them the trick, it’ll most likely just shut down their thinking.”

That goes for grownups, too. If you’re brushing up on some basic math skills, don’t just memorize facts or use nifty tricks. When you take a little time to look beyond a quick answer, you will likely learn a great deal more. And as we all know, this can extend to other applications and concepts.

Math is often described as a set of building blocks stacked on one another — the foundation must be there to move into more complex concepts and more difficult applications.

But it’s also a web. What you learn about multiplication applies to division, which applies to factors and multiples, which applies to fractions. Sometimes, a concept that passes you by can be better understood later on when the idea shows up again. In other words, you might just learn your 12s times tables,when you’re applying measurement conversions (12″ = 1′). Tricks just might keep you from deeper understanding.

So whether you’re trying to get good at math on the fly or helping your child remember that 9 x 8 = 72, be careful with the tricks. They just might keep you or your child from learning much bigger concepts.

Do you depend on math tricks? If you’re a teacher, what do you think of students using math tricks?