*Photo by Chrissy Johnson1 via flickr. In this Homeschooling Math with Profound Understanding (PUFM) Series, we are studying Elementary Mathematics for Teachers and applying its lessons to home education.*

Our decimal system of recording numbers is ingenious. Once learned, it is a simple, versatile, and efficient way of writing numbers. … But the system is not obvious nor easily learned. The use of place value is subtle, and mastering it is the single most challenging aspect of elementary school mathematics.

Ironically, these challenges are largely invisible to untrained parents and teachers — place value is so ingrained in adults’ minds that it is difficult to appreciate how important it is and how hard it is to learn.

— Thomas H. Parker & Scott J. Baldridge

Elementary Mathematics for Teachers

In other words, we take place value for granted. I know this was true of me when I started teaching my kids. Every year, their textbooks would start with the obligatory chapters on place value, which seemed to me just busywork. I began to appreciate the vital importance of place value when I read Liping Ma’s book and saw how the American teachers were unable to properly explain subtraction or multi-digit multiplication.

Place value is the heart of our number system, the foundation on which all the rest of arithmetic must be built. Because of place value, “The simplest schoolboy is now familiar with facts for which Archimedes would have sacrificed his life.”