The student I was tutoring became visibly upset at not being able to complete some multiple multiplication problems. She complained that she didn’t know her times tables well.

“Why not use your built-in calculator?” I asked her while flexing my fingers.

“My teacher says I can’t,” she said.

“Your teacher is not here. I am. I say use them.” I replied.

“Other people here say I shouldn’t either.” she said.

“Why did they tell you that?” I asked.

“My teacher says we need to memorize it and that people will make fun of me for finger counting. She said people will laugh at me when I am fifty and still counting on my fingers.” She replied.

“Do you like your teacher?” I asked.

“She’s okay,” She said.

“Well...I think your teacher is an idiot!”


I remember coloring a picture of some Smurfs in first grade. My teacher walked up and asked, “what are you doing to that picture?”

I said, “I’m coloring.”

She began to berate me for my coloring choices, as well as for not coloring inside the lines. “It is a sloppy, sloppy mess. That’s disgusting! No one wants to see that” (My mom ended up putting it on the fridge).

I peered at her in anger and said, “did Picasso color inside the lines!?”

I was immediately removed from class for a bad attitude. Really? I wasn’t the one that introduced art criticism to a 6 year old!

She would be my very first critic. There have been several in my time, some of them I currently work with. My favorite was my acting teacher who told me and a scene partner, “You two sound like anemic rats with ex-lax shoved up your ass! Get off my stage!”  How encouraging!


I continued my rant,”Your teacher has no business, telling a third grader that the world will laugh at you if you count on your fingers. Who does she think she is? I’m forty years old. I have two Bachelors degrees, a Masters in Educational Leadership, and I still count on my fingers.  I bet she told you not to color outside the lines too!” I know one finger she can count. (Notice this is not in quotes.)

Sadly, many educators, some very well meaning, espouse the same obtuse philosophy.  I have heard teachers say, “we don’t use our fingers, because often times you won’t have time to do it.” They try to give “real life,” scenarios where using your fingers to count could be detrimental. All of which I saw on an episode of FANTASY ISLAND!  My favorite was the one where “you need to count bullets on your fingers for all the zombies you to need to kill…you will be eaten alive!”

I truly wish I made up that zombie scenario. Kudos for trying to relate to a Walking Dead fan, but seriously? Telling a kid she’s going to die if she counts on her fingers? Ridiculous!

There are some research based reasons against finger counting. However, the idea that it is a useless crutch; that is detrimental to math achievement, is very unclear. I’ll say that again, there is no clear data to support finger counting as detrimental to math achievement.  In fact, most research finds finger counting more beneficial. Including a study by Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford University, stating that finger sense or finger counting, is extremely critical to math achievement. Drawing from a previous study’s findings, she indicates that finger counting acts as a way for students to blaze visual trails from short term memory into long term memory. Thus aiding in fact memorization (Berletti and Booth, 2015). When I was in theater, the way we memorized lines was by simply reading them over repetitiously, attaching emotions and visualizing actions to those words. It is the same with finger counting. Not only does the tangible counting help increase memory, it also stimulates the creative centers of the brain. Creativity, is one of the highest forms of knowledge.

I happen to subscribe to the “by any means necessary,” theory of education. If it works… use it.  If it means coloring outside the lines or counting on fingers, there is not one right way to achieve mastery. Jackson Pollack, in a drunken stupor, throws paint on a canvas and he’s immortalized for it! A child colors outside the lines or creates a finger counting scheme and they are demoralized for it. Why?

I call it the tyranny of teaching.Teachers often resort to how they were taught. That would explain the repetition of unsound teaching practices over the years. I had numerous teachers during my time try to sway me away from finger counting. It seemed as though they looked down upon students who needed “tools” to aide them in mathematics. Secondly, I think some teachers subscribe to the belief that they, and only they, must be the all knowing, all powerful force of instruction in the classroom. A fascist approach to say the least. It can be effective for classroom management, but it doesn’t help children create learning experiences for themselves. That is the purpose of what school should be! Tyrannical classrooms tend to have a cold, callous, vacuum-like feel. The purpose of learning in these classrooms, is to repeat what is dictated, regardless of whether it makes sense or doesn’t work for the individual. George Orwell wrote about it… it was called “1984.”  Funny how close it was to the year I was berated for my coloring choices and finger schemes.

As always, I am thankful for you reading Tales From The Red Pen. Please feel free to comment and subscribe! Until next week, I bid you…Adieu.