What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Smarter

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Thanks for your interest in math and Big Brainz!

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Common Core and Multiplication Tables

To learn more about how multiplication factors into the Common Core State Standards, visit our new location at Imagine This!


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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.

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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.


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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.

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Using Multiplication Worksheets to Assess Fluency

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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.

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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 | 6 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 | 16 Comments