Friday, July 07, 2017

maths facts speed and fidget spinners

Good article by Dan Willingham and great comments: On fidget spinners and speeded math practice

I teach Direct Instruction maths and timed maths facts practice and testing is a significant part of that program. Some kids are good at maths facts and complete their sheets easily in the time provided. Others are not good, I can see them counting on their fingers and they can't complete the sheet in time. Over time the pattern repeats. Those who are good breeze through; those who count on their fingers struggle and I don't see a lot of improvement happening despite all the practice we are doing. Does that give them maths anxiety? Possibly. It does give me teacher anxiety. I wonder how can I help them improve?

The main part of Dan's article covered an issue that I think is obvious. Speed in maths facts helps build conceptual understanding.

The comments discussed the issue that concerns me in more detail.

The first commment (Michael Persham) stresses that you have to be clear on the goal of maths facts practice. The goal is for the kids to memorise the facts, to achieve automatic recall.

So, those kids who count on their fingers are not working towards that goal. So, how can I get them to stop counting on their fingers and work towards the goal directly?

Well, I could talk to them about the goal of memorising facts and how counting on fingers works against that. I've never done that! Why? Because I wasn't really clear about the goal and in the back of my mind I was thinking it is better if they get some correct answers by a method that works for them.

Now I'm thinking it would be better to say to them give it a quick guess rather than count on fingers. I'm not suggesting they will all follow my advice - getting the right answer is a strongly, conditioned goal - but a few will give it a go. It's important then that they are not penalised for a quick guess, that it does not become part of their formal assessment.

The second comment (John Golden) suggests some particular strategies to improve maths facts recall. After handing out the worksheet:
  • ask the students to circle the ones they know by memory
  • ask students to identify 5 they want to know by memory but don't
  • give out the sheets like a word search, "find all the computations that sum to 8?"
The third comment (educationrealist) raises some broader issues which are important for my practice as well but I won't go into them now. One issue of concern which he/she raises is that some students never get good at maths facts but that doesn't mean they can't do other, more conceptual parts of maths well. I can see it is really important to identify those students so they don't get discouraged by their lack of ability in one small area of maths.

So, why will I buy a fidget spinner? Because a good teacher uses drama, one of the real secrets of teaching. And I'm also thinking they would make a great prize for those who improve a lot in their maths facts speed.