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Discovering a Shortcut in Math Class Led to Unintended Lessons

Gabriel Spitzer

Koleka Furlett can’t even count the number of times she’s tested her math trick on a chalkboard with numbers ranging in the millions and billions. It’s a trick she came up with in the third grade when she was first learning her multiplication tables. Koleka noticed a pattern when multiplying numbers by five that made for a handy shortcut. Basically, whatever number you want to multiply by 5, divide it in half and stick a 0 on the end. (For example, 16 x 5. Half of 16 is 8, then stick a 0 on the end. So the answer would be 80.)  If it’s an odd number, subtract 1, divide it in half, and stick a 5 on the end. (17 x 5. Subtract 1, that’s 16. Half of 16 is 8. Stick a 5 on the end. The answer would be 85.)


It seemed like a straightforward shortcut, so much so that Koleka asked her mom when she would be learning it in school. Her mom had never heard of the trick, and brought Koleka’s shortcut to one of the local high school math teachers, who it turns out, had never heard of the trick either. The high school math teacher wrote a proof and submitted the story of the third grader who discovered it. One thing led to another, and for the span of a few months in Koleka’s fifth grade year she was a national news story: Koleka, the Math Girl.


Credit Koleka Furlett
Koleka's 5th grade photo

But Koleka never felt that she’d done anything extraordinary, even back then. In a VHS recording of one of her many news appearances, eleven year old Koleka is recorded saying “I didn’t do anything special. Anyone could do it, they just didn’t do it.” Regardless, her reputation as The Math Girl followed her the rest of her academic career. Teachers seemed to give her a free pass from doing her homework, convinced that she was successful by virtue of her reputation. Some twenty years later, Koleka can’t help but wonder if the attention she got as The Math Girl imparted negative lessons about success and what it means to try hard.


Sound Effect contributor Bethany Denton produced this story.