Learn from this Mistake

  • Posted on: 20 February 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

It's not fun to write about mistakes, or even to think about them. But there is a mistake that is rampant in our schools right now - and it's time that we learn from it and move on. Don't cringe when you read this! We are using accommodations to mask the need to improve students' fluency with math facts. There - I've said it! We allow students with disabilities to use a calculator, a multiplication chart, a number line or some other tool while his or her peers are developing the automaticity that they will need to succeed in mathematics over the long haul. This practice has been commonplace for years, and has been implemented with the best of intentions at all grade levels. However, the time has come to wake up and realize that it can be detrimental.

The mistake is not the accommodation itself. The problem is that the accommodation lulls the entire IEP team into complacency.  After all, with this accommodation... 'Problem solved', right?  No.  Actually that should read more like 'problem swept under the carpet'!  The time to address math fluency issues is when a problem is first detected - in the very earliest possible phase of a student's education.  And by addressing it, I do no not mean by working around it.  Students need more drill and practice, not less.  They need intensive and frequent intervention- whatever it takes to strengthen their math fluency skills and build automaticity of basic math facts. They need more instruction at an earlier age to build the foundation that will allow them to succeed as they progress through the curriculum.

Why is this so important, and why do I feel so strongly about it? Automaticity plays a much bigger role in our cognitive (and subsequently) academic functioning than many of us realize. In the words of John Hattie and Gregory Yates, "When automaticity is lacking there is reduced capacity to think and comprehend" (2013, p. 53). In Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, the authors explain that automaticity with math facts frees up the mental space that students (and all of us) need to engage in deeper understanding and conceptual mastery. As students without automaticity of math facts grow older, they face the challenge of a huge cognitive load - above and beyond what is faced by their typical peers.  They must simultaneously try to engage with new content, ideas and skills without being able to instantly recall basic math facts.  Without automaticity of math facts, their cognitive load will always be exceptionally heavy, and they will not be able to devote their full mental energy to learning new skills or concepts.

In short, when students do not develop automaticity of math facts they face a lifetime of struggle in mathematics. Is avoiding some hard work and struggle in the primary grades worth this?  As an educator and a parent I state emphatically, "I think not"!  

Mistakes of the past can be the improvements of tomorrow.  Early detection through proactive screening, paired with intensive intervention in math facts, can prevent early learning difficulties from developing into persistent, long-term problems.

I strongly support accommodations that allow students access to the general curriculum, but using an accommodation to 'skirt' an important learning issue will ultimately impede a student's ability to progress in the general curriculum.  It's time to change this practice - not by suddenly disallowing it, but by providing students with the intensive instruction that they need and deserve. Fluency of math facts, given the right type and amount of instruction, is within the reach of all students who do not have a signficant cognitive disability.

Tomorrow is a new day; an opportunity to do better. The next time an accommodation for math fluency is discussed at an IEP meeting, ask yourself, "What is the real issue here, and are we addressing it adequately?" Work collaboratively with the IEP team to fix this common mistake and move the student forward to a brighter future in mathematics. 

 Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it. (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

 Hattie, J.H. & Yates, G. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Routledge, New York, NY.