In Defense of Long Division

It is hard to say that anything is certain in life, but I’m quite sure a few things can be crossed off my shopping list for good.


Carbon paper.

A watch you have to wind every day. Or ever.

This morning I talked with some friends about obsolescence. Even the 20-something in the group was able to remember items from her childhood that have gone the way of answering machines and slide rules. (Although she wasn’t exactly sure what a slide rule was.)

Before long, we realized our list might extend beyond everyday objects. We wondered whether certain skills or topics we learned in school might go on the list. What had we learned that is no longer relevant, or even accurate?

It was easy at first. I learned about nine planets in our solar system. That’s certainly not true anymore, since Pluto’s demotion to a mere dwarf planet.

Today’s Periodic Table of the Elements has 118 neatly organized squares. Back in the 70s, I learned only 103 or so.

In typing class, Mrs. Smith taught us to hit the space bar twice after each sentence.  No more, according to the Chicago Manual of Style. Computers give us proportional fonts, and a single space will do just fine.

Today, most high school students cannot form the entire alphabet in cursive. They only need the letters used to sign their own names. The demise of cursive writing is not a big deal; these kids have been required to use word processing for their assignments since third grade.

I bet business majors don’t spend much time mastering Gregg shorthand these days.

And thanks to graphing calculators, trig classes can delve into sines, cosines, and tangents without plotting tedious points by hand on quadrille paper. 

Which brings us to long division.

With a basic calculator running three bucks or so, and every child over age eight carrying a smart phone, does anybody need to crank out problems like 25,476 divided by 181 the old fashioned way? Does the “upside down L” division sign mean anything nowadays? We are much more familiar with the simple forward slash on our phone or computer screen. And when was the last time you used (or even thought about) the words “quotient” or “remainder”?

In this morning’s conversation, opinions were mixed.

The truth is, even top flight physics students of the 21st century have little notion of the mechanics of long division. They don’t have the time or patience for the trial and error methods that I learned, and probably don’t have to show their work the way I did. Division is simply a step on the path to solving a larger problem.

But despite the long-standing controversy over the “new math” of the last generation, or integration of math skills into “spiraled” curriculum today, I believe there is  something to be said for plain old long division.

Division is a foundation skill, much like writing a basic sentence. The neat pattern of mathematics isn’t complete without an understanding that division is the opposite of multiplication – sort of a repeated subtraction process. As we learned to handle more complex problems, we applied estimation skills. Those remainders we learned about early in the game propelled us to an understanding of decimals and fractions, and how they relate to each other.

And the orderly language of mathematics is, indeed, one representation of the world around us. It’s what those kids are learning in physics class. It is important, I think, to frame those scientific concepts around deep understanding of the basics that underlie them, and help students understand “why.”

There is more to it than hitting the slash key.

My husband Mike takes a different stance. He is convinced that the full bore electronic route to solving time consuming math problems will win out in the end, if it hasn’t already. He went so far as to say that if you handed a traditional long division problem to a passerby  on the street (with that “little tent thing” over the numbers), you would be met with a blank stare, or the remark, “What the hell is this?”

Maybe I am a traditionalist. Maybe it’s idealism. Maybe a bit of naiveté  But some things, I believe, should never go out of style.

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9 Responses to In Defense of Long Division

  1. Deanne Lucas says:

    As an avid viewer of Jeopardy, I recall an occasional question where the player has to answer a math related problem BUT they don’t have the paper and pencil: it is all mental. So, I believe, the basic concepts need to be learned in the event any of us ever qualify to be on Jeopardy.

  2. Kathi Ganz says:

    It’s funny, but . . . just the other day, less than a week ago, I did some long division as I was sitting in my comfy recliner at home because I was too lazy to get up and look for my calculator. I’m glad I knew how! So, yes . . . I have to agree with you! Also wish to give a shout out to Sister Francesca for teaching me how. 🙂

  3. Laurna says:

    … always enjoy and look forward to the next story!
    Then there is the famous math problem presented by both Ma & Pa Kettle! Both thought they were correct! 🙂
    Another factor to this fast paced changeing world, is the desire & interest to keep up, to continue learning everyday. Unfortunately I see many people make excuse of being too busy, assuptions w/o fact, regurigitate what they hear w/o comparing facts, who do not read, or research what they do not understand even with a cell phone available, or believe they learned all they needed in high school! No wonder younger generation think older people are (you add the phrase).

  4. Laurna says:

    I didn’t quite understand long division lesson presented in school so my mother showed me short division and I’ve used that since. Just do not understand why one has to scrawl all down the page when you just carry over to the next digit and only use 1-2 lines 😉

  5. Lynn McLean says:

    Laurna, I looked up Ma and Pa Kettle doing math on YouTube. Know what’s scary? It all made sense in a crazy way!

  6. dkzody says:

    Two spaces after a period–yes did that. Shorthand–yes and still remember it. Cursive writing–you bet. Answering machine–still have one that gets used A LOT. Planets and element table–never stuck with me. Long division–did it, hated it, and prefer that calculator. Now, my mother would bring up driving a buggy, canning fruits and veggies, sewing her own clothes, hauling water, building a fire. All things I cannot, will not, and don’t want to do.

  7. Things I miss a little bit: spelling, my rotary dial princess phone, long, lingering afternoons curled up with a book under a tree, sewing, casseroles, a fireplace, growing vegetables, researching a term paper in the library (wait, I don’t miss that – i LOVE the internet for research.)

    Love this post, Lynn. 🙂

    • Lynn says:

      I actually wondered if the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature was a thing of the past…kind of figured it was, actually…and then spotted it on the shelf in a high school library not long ago. A 2010 edition. Imagine that!

  8. kathy says:

    What a great blog posting. I think it has partly answered some questions i have had lately about younger people we encounter. They don’t seem to have the ability to problem solve if we give them a problem to solve, they just look at us with a blank look. Interestingly, they also don’t know how to write things in cursive.

    I am looking forward to the next post!

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