What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Smarter

In 2011 Andrea Kuszewski wrote a great article about how we can increase our intelligence: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/07/you-can-increase-your-intelligence-5-ways-to-maximize-your-cognitive-potential/

My metaphor for what Andrea said would be: cross-training. If you’re constantly pushing your body (or mind) in new and challenging ways, it will continue to strengthen and improve. Once it gets used to a certain activity, it stops building new muscle and can actually decline as it gets more efficient.

Big Brainz happens to fulfill most of the applicable steps for expanding your intelligence, and the key tie-in for me, was the fact that increasing your mental capacity in one area, allows you to be more capable in other areas.

The cross-training metaphor kicks in again–getting good at any sport will have a positive effect in other sports. In education that would imply that mastering  your multiplication facts with Big Brainz would likely make you a better reader.

What we have actually found is that mastering multiplication has a disproportionately positive impact on everything a student does because it significantly boosts the students’ confidence and work ethic. Sure, by simply mastering core multiplication facts, the student has removed the most prolific stumbling block in math. But they’ve also removed a giant billboard from their life that was constantly telling them “You’re stupid,” or “You’re no good at math.”

By conquering the ubiquitous challenge of fact fluency, they’ve chopped that sign down and burned it, replacing it with a sign that constantly tells them, “Wow, you NAILED that really hard thing. You’re wicked smart! With a little elbow grease, you can do anything!!”

Transforming students from discouraged to flourishing–THAT is why we do what we do here at Big Brainz.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Common Core and Multiplication Tables

I just stumbled across an article incorrectly stating that mastering multiplication tables is LESS important in the Common Core.

Here’s the article:

Here’s what Common Core really says:

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.OA.C.7 Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.

The more you care about developing higher-order mathematics, the more important fluency becomes–here’s the comment I left:

It’s completely incorrect to state or imply that Common Core does not stress or require basic fact memorization. In truth, Common Core actually elevates the priority of automatic recall–now requiring automatic recall by the end of grade 3. Automaticity is obviously not the end goal of mathematics, but it IS a critical step.

This is a critical clarification because massive research shows that the average student was already failing at fluency in Idaho (and everywhere else in the country). Anything making it an even lower priority will only exacerbate the problem of trying to teach algebra to 7th-graders who have to stop every 5 seconds to calculate 6×8.

Understanding and strategy are partners with fluency–not enemies. Implying otherwise is like saying that you’re going to win football games by tossing out the offensive line so that the quarterback has more room to maneuver. They may not be sexy, but they win games.

Automaticity doesn’t impede or detract from strategy and understanding–on the contrary it helps it enormously. The real problem with fluency is that most teachers are still using primitive tools, spending 15 to 30 hours, only to average 59% fluency by 5th-grade. That means they’re spending too many precious hours without even getting to the finish line!

This drives us crazy because as experts in fact fluency, our average 3rd-grader masters fluency in 4.6 hours and tests above 95%. Don’t toss fluency, but do toss stone age tools like flash cards, flash games, and worksheets. I’d rather not even mention our product’s name because I don’t want this to be self-serving. I’d rather focus on the key point that total fluency is critical, and it’s quite speedy and guaranteed if you just stop and Google a truly powerful solution.

Posted in Math, Multiplication | 1 Comment

Why Kids Don’t Know Their Multiplication Tables-Part 3

Lack of Assessment and Reporting.

Fact fluency is not directly measured in end-of-year testing. Schools tease at assessment with worksheets and games, but they never get in and find out which facts students can recall automatically and which ones they can’t.

Principals and teachers aren’t eager to promote failing students, but because the depth of failure is not clearly reported in black and white, the problem is easily swept under the rug.

If schools published a letter grade for the math fluency of each class, we would see an instant and dramatic improvement. Few educators would be willing to tolerate an average grade of “F” for their classes, but with fact fluency they do tolerate across-the-board failure because they never really know that’s how bad their students are doing.

Math fact fluency is easily the most un-diagnosed cause of overall math failure later in life, and could be quickly remedied if it were simply assessed and reported.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Why Kids Don’t Know Their Multiplication Tables-Part 2

Inefficient Instruction.

If you read Part 1, you know that mastering multiplication is hard. But it’s not impossible, right? I mean any decent educator with a deck of flash cards can whip just about any student in to shape eventually, right?

But teachers rarely get to teach 1-on-1 and when they switch to teaching large groups, their instruction has to generalize. They turn to worksheets, random multiplication games, or flash cards. However, all of these methods lack the benefits that intelligent instruction can provide.

Specifically, worksheets, flash cards, and most games aren’t able to prioritize fact presentation based on how well the student knows each individual fact. And second, they aren’t able to be strategic in how they move knowledge form short-term to long-term memory.

Random drill and kill–a surefire recipe for failure.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Why Kids Don’t Know Their Multiplication Tables-Part 1

Because it’s hard. It’s difficult. It requires mental effort and consistency.

Even Timez Attack requires a significant amount of effort. It’s fun and rewarding, but it’s active engagement. And folks today favor passive engagement like watching TV, playing casual games, or clicking “Like” on Facebook.

I guess this is kind of a short post, but in the end, effort really is the only real reason a child doesn’t master their multiplication tables. I’ll start giving more practical solutions in the next segment.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Using Multiplication Worksheets to Assess Fluency

Multiplication worksheets are the most common way that schools measure math fact fluency, yet aggregating response times from so many different facts rarely tells you which ones a student is actually fluent with and which ones they are still calculating.

Here are a few tips for maximizing your effectiveness:

1. Assess each individual fact. You can use a stopwatch or let a program like Timez Attack do it for you automatically, but at some point it’s critical to measure which facts they can recall automatically and which ones they have to stop and calculate. If you don’t measure it accurately, you won’t fix it.

2. For your reference, fluent students generally recall AND input a 2-digit response in 1.9 seconds with a standard deviation of .6 seconds. Verbal responses would typically need just 1 second. A fluent student is automatic, but they are also confident. It’s empowering and motivational to KNOW the answer, so don’t shortchange students by settling for fumbled answers.

3. Report the results and do it as a letter grade. Few educators or parents will ignore a student that is clearly failing, yet the majority of students today currently have an “F” in fluency, yet they are promoted without a second thought because the shortcoming is only vaguely discovered and reported–if it’s discovered or reported at all.

4. If you have to use worksheets for assessment for some reason, at least do it in smaller chunks or lock down the average time. 2 seconds per fact will always be a fairly certain demonstration of fluency and 2.5 to 3 seconds per fact for 10 to 12 facts at a time will do a decent job. But if you gave an average student three minutes to answer 60 facts, they would answer the easy half in 1.5 to 2 seconds each, but then take 3 to 8 seconds to calculate others, giving only the illusion of fluency.

5. Don’t settle. Fluency is a core skill, yet the average student today plateaus in the 5th-grade with just 59% mastery–essentially the easy facts. Would you promote a student that had only learned 59% of the alphabet? Timez Attack delivers 95% fluency in a matter of hours, so there’s no need to handicap students for the rest of their math careers.

6. Finally, don’t assume that student fluency will magically improve “somehow” after they leave your class. Adopt the attitude, “If I send a student out the door with poor fluency, I’m likely ensuring they will struggle with math for the rest of their life.”

I’ll wrap up with some general advice. Learning multiplication is hard, so block out the time for it. But it’s also completely doable, so don’t let failure be an option. Timez Attack can knock it out easily for you in a matter of hours. No worries if you prefer a different way but whichever path you choose, make sure your students cross the finish line.

Posted in Educational Software, Math, Multiplication | 2 Comments

Maybe good is good enough–do students deserve high-end educational software?

I was in a serious discussion with the head of one of the two largest educational publishers about the incredible possibilities that high-end educational software could offer students.  I pressed him to explain why everyone in educational software kept cranking out primitive games instead.  His seasoned response?  Kids are already so bored in school that by comparison, just a little bit of entertainment is enough.

In other words, if you’re starving, a crust of bread is a feast.  Why waste money on steak? Or more generously, if a baloney sandwich will do, why prepare a feast?

So when is good good enough? Let’s use multiplication tables as an example. Are Flash cards good enough? They’re cheap. If you invest the time, they work. Why do anything else? So maybe you’re more motivated than that and you make a little flash game that teaches multiplication. Maybe you go the extra mile and have it track their work and generate reports?  While you’re at it, why not Google someone’s thesis from the 80’s so you can call it “Research-Based” and charge a lot of money for it.  That’s basically as far as anyone gets.  So why in the world would anyone choose to invest millions and millions of dollars over years and years, when viable alternatives are so cheap and easy?

Our answer is that cheap, primitive solutions aren’t good enough because “good enough” can be easily quantified and our students are failing.  Only about 1/3 of students in the US are considered Proficient in math. Period. That really ought to immediately end any speculation over whether our current efforts are good enough.

Once every student is achieving needed levels of mastery in the needed time period . . . THEN we can start arguing about whether they’re having too much fun along the way. Until then, can we as an industry please pull our head out of the sand and stop flooding the world with primitive educational software that simply doesn’t do the job?

Now, I understand the complaints about that philosophy myself. “Hey, the software we already have DOES the job. It’s just insanely hard to get schools to realize that and use it.” Yes, schools are unbelievably fragmented, politically divisive, cash-strapped, and justifiably cynical about educational software. You would truly have to be stupendous in ways as-yet-unimagined to cut through all that friction.

So do it. Create programs that aren’t just well-intentioned, evolutionary improvements. Break all the rules. Invest a billion dollars in Algebra and change the world forever. Billion sounds like a big number, but over 10 years that amortizes down to just $25 per student. And that’s just in the US.  Spread that across the globe and it’s practically free. Do you think districts would pay a few bucks to yank all of their students up to Proficient in Algebra? Uhh . . . duh! You’d make a fortune and you’d be saving the world at the same time.

So to summarize then, can we please all settle in on the fact that whatever you’re doing, however you’re doing it, we need to massively improve our education technology. Children are still getting left behind. Only a handful are getting ahead. We have the technology to fix it and we have the capital. We just don’t demand it. We’re settling for a crust of bread when we could have a feast.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Division Games–The best way to master multiplication?

Division games have never been in super high demand.  In fact, the only time we’ve ever really been asked about division is when folks are asking if we cover “all four” operations. However, once we finally finished our division expansion pack we discovered something very interesting. Well, first we realized that it’s hard. We’ve been focused on multiplication for so long that, well, we’re REALLY good at it.  But even though division is really the same thing in reverse, it’s surprisingly different.  It’s sort of like learning to make a lay-up with your left hand instead of your right.

But the main thing we learned is that division games significantly deepened and solidified our math awareness. Understanding how the fact operations work, both forward AND backwards, really pounds them home and gives you a more solid understanding.  With students, we also found that moving on to a powerful division experience after mastering multiplication ensured that the multiplication mastery all stayed nice and solid.

In the end, we figure that mastering division in addition to multiplication will help students comprehend division concepts better all around, but it will also accelerate all of their calculations by a few seconds.  This will let them save an enormous amount of time over the next many years.  But more importantly, getting the basic calculations out of the way will enable them to focus and master higher order concepts much more effectively in the coming years.

So . . . three cheers for Division–the black sheep of the fact family!

Posted in Division, Educational Software, Math, Multiplication | 8 Comments

Researched-Based Multiplication Games—Fact or Fiction?

Savvy educators regularly ask us if our multiplication games are research-based.  On the surface that sounds like an important question.  But in reality it’s essentially meaningless.  In the researching world there’s the common expression that “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  In other words, knowing that there was some research associated with a product really doesn’t tell you anything.  Maybe the research was lousy.  Maybe the research showed the product was lame.  In either case the manufacturer could still claim it to be research-based.  Even worse, research on a poor product can easily be presented in such a way that it SEEMS amazing.

For instance, in one of the multiplication games we came across, their research was from 30 years ago!  That’s ancient history, not research.  How big was the sample size?  How was it controlled and administered, etc?  But how many educators really have the training, background, and time to ask and evaluate all those questions?  Very few.  And so they wind up asking, “Is it research-based?”  Check.  And they move on.

So is there a solution or are we just being armchair quarterbacks taking shots from the cheap seats?  Well, for our multiplication games we took the perspective of Derrin Hill of Imagine Learning.  He explained to me that when he’s considering a vendor he always challenges them, “Prove to me it’s worth it.”  For instance, if a magazine wants him to advertise he requires them to first run a trackable ad and then he measure the results.  If it PROVES effective, he moves forward.

Accordingly, if a school wants to use our multiplication games, we might allow them to pilot the software with an included pre-test and post-test so that they can automatically quantify how effective it is for their students.  It’s a very simple way for them to prove how effectively Timez Attack teaches multiplication.  The indirect bonus of that approach is that it provides a massive amount of detailed feedback for the developer, allowing them to very clearly see where they’re falling short and improve their product.  It’s tantalizing to imagine a day when  schools will pay for actual learning and progress rather than just paying for the hope and promise of learning.

Posted in Educational Software, Math, Multiplication, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Tablets and iPads in School Classrooms

Lots of folks have kicked around the idea of iPads replacing textbooks or laptops in school classrooms, but I think both discussions are missing the real value of an iPad or tablet in a classroom—the input.  The key stumbling block for software instruction is input.  Humans are vastly better at understanding what children know and what they don’t know than computers are.  Humans can gauge student mastery by listening to what they say, by reading what they write, or simply by looking at the expression on their face.

Well, throw in a little voice-command, some handwriting recognition, and add a camera with “confusion detection” rather than “smile detection” and you’ve made digital education vastly more realistic.  A little too Buck Rogers?  Today, maybe.  But give it a few more years.

In the short-term, I’m most excited about the immediate benefits for math.  If a student does their math homework on an iPad, an awesome algebra app could follow along with HOW they’re solving the problem and show them exactly where in the process they may have messed up and instantly link them to the correction and instruction they need to keep working towards mastery.  I think iPads and tablets open the door for us to teach complex math subjects, like algebra, as effectively as games like Timez Attack teach multiplication.

What do you think—doable?

Posted in Educational Software, Math, Multiplication | 17 Comments