Intersecting circles of experience: The Issue of Mad Minute Tests (with Aubrey Neihaus)

Sometimes we find ourselves as intersecting circles of experience. I was engaging in a conversation with my wonderful cousin about something she was grappling with: her son, a fourth grader, was frustrated with his math class. Evan (a pseudonym) said that his teacher expected him to memorize his multiplication tables and demonstrate mastery within a certain time frame (remember Mad Minute tests?). The summer had been long and he was getting readjusted to the routines of school again.  My cousin watched her child sit in a sense of frustration because he couldn’t recall his facts as quickly as his teacher wanted him to. We both could watch his love of math slipping away with each test and each sense of frustration that he wasn’t doing math fast enough or with the accuracy expected. As I chatted with my cousin, **at the very same night,** Aubrey Neihaus, a dear friend from Arizona who is a doctoral candidate in mathematics education, reached out to Priya and myself to share about nearly the exact same experience she was having with her child. Interestingly Amy Noelle Parks wrote about this at. the. same. time. on Twitter (a series of problems with multi-digit operations without any context or connection to the child’s experiences or existing knowlege). There had to be something going on with this because my cousin, Aubrey, and Amy weren’t coordinating these messages or experiences.

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After getting some amazing insight from Priya, Aubrey wondered how she might reach out to her child’s teacher and share her thoughts with more people (she was finishing her PhD comprehensive exams at the time so I thought that maybe my blog might be a good platform to get the ideas out and generating some conversation). Below is Aubrey’s reflection and something that we all should consider as we think about what it means to expect children to demonstrate fact fluency without considering children’s existing knowledge and how these speed tests might do more harm than good:

A few weeks into the school year, my husband was doing math homework with my kid and mentioned to me that “he had to do as many problems as he could” in a set amount of time. As a math educator and a math education researcher, my spidey sense tingled. Having done work on math anxiety, I know how harmful timed tests can be for kids as they develop their dispositions towards mathematics. A past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has a book that is literally titled “Faster Isn’t Smarter.” And while the math education researcher community has moved away from things like “Mad Minutes” (what my third grade teacher, Miss Jones, called these timed fact worksheets), I fully recognize that teachers work within a system that highly values standardized assessments and—often as a result—speed in computation*. At this point in the school year, I hadn’t even met my kid’s teacher, and didn’t feel like it was appropriate to email her about this just yet. I won’t lie—it probably also didn’t hurt that my kid can be pretty competitive and wasn’t, at this point, adversely affected by the timed nature of the worksheet. So I set my misgivings on the shelf.

Over the month or so after the Mad Minute homework, I had a few opportunities to talk with my kid about math and was really pleased to hear him putting addition into conceptual terms. While in my office last weekend, he stood at my whiteboard and told me that he was going to explain math to me (I have a BS in Math, a MS in Teaching Math, and half a PhD in Teaching and Teacher Education—wait for it—in Math). Sure, buddy, explain math to me. He proceeded to explain to me that there are different kinds of addition, depending on where the unknown is in the equation. Go on… He told me about words that characterized each type, like “all together” or “some more.” OK. The kid then wrote out two different equations as examples, one with the unknown on the left side of the equation as an addend, one with it on the right side of the equation with it as the sum. *Highfives a million angels*

So heading into parent teacher conference this week, I knew that my kid’s teacher was using a quality curriculum (Engage NY) and was teaching conceptual mathematics (hello, different problem types in addition!). But I also knew that like many many teachers in the US, she was still holding onto things that researchers had moved away from. I didn’t know exactly why that was, but from my nine years working with teachers, I had a feeling that standardized assessment and “accountability” probably played a role. I also knew that my kid was not personally affected by this (yet—who knows what might happen in a month or a year or five years), but if you’re a doctor and you know your kid’s pediatrician is using outdated practices, you should say something, right?

The night before the parent teacher conference, I texted my colleagues who are also friends (none of whom have kids, but all of whom are excellent teacher educators) and asked for advice. Three big themes emerged from their advice that I chose to put into practice:

  1. This is a challenge that lots of parents face, regardless of their professional lives. Part of the reason I’m collaborating with Crystal here is to affirm that yes, even math education researchers sometimes wonder about the way math is taught to their kids, and how we should approach it with our kiddo’s teacher.
  2. Context is important. A parent-teacher conference is a space where the teacher has considerable professional expertise to share with the parent(s) and that taking that into account is important in considering how I might broach my concerns. Before the conference, I hadn’t yet met my kid’s teacher, and she certainly didn’t know that I run math PD for teachers like her. This is a very different setting than the one I’m usually encountering teachers in—where they are opting into a professional learning experience and I’m their instructor/facilitator.
  3. I should consider offering myself as a resource to my kid’s teacher. A few subpoints here that are worth making more obvious.
  4. I decided to offer myself as a resource in a blanket way. This meant offering to make suggestions about resources; vetting resources; seeing if the school could be a site for student teachers in the program I work with; etc. In this way, I didn’t lead with my concerns, but rather with an offer to support my kid’s teacher in whatever way she wanted.
  5. It was important to me to lead with support rather than my concerns. Part of this has to do with the context above. The other part has to do with recognizing that I don’t expect teachers to instantly fix everything and solve everything. Too often, our society expects education (and especially teachers) to have unlimited resources for fixing all kinds of social ills, while operating on very finite resources. Rather than being someone telling her something else she needed to fix, I wanted to be someone telling her I’m happy to help if she wants it.
  6. The teacher may or may not opt to access me as a resource and I am ok with that. She might have lots of reasons for whatever degree to which she takes me up as a resource. She might have limited time or mental space to add coordinating with me to her long to-do list. She might have had bad experiences with parental “help” in the past. Her principal might frown on it. She might be considering a change in her career (maybe to a different school or different position) and my kind of help isn’t particularly helpful in this moment. Regardless, leaving it up to her to opt into my support was important to me. I wanted to make sure that as a parent (and also a math educator) I wasn’t using my social or professional status to strong-arm my way into her professional life. Sure, my kid is her student, but as I said at the onset, at this point, he’s thriving in her classroom, so I don’t need to be asserting my parental authority here. Instead, I need to be recognizing all the great work she’s already done in her short time with him and leave it up to her professional opinion whether she wants to use me as a resource.
  7. I chose not to lead with this. In fact, I waited the whole conference to bring it up. I wanted to give her space to have the parent-teacher conference she and I should have. And after reading the temperature of the room, and feeling like it wouldn’t be unwelcome to offer myself as a resource, I did at the end of our conference.

I’m happy to share that our parent-teacher conference went well. My kid’s doing great and I absolutely adore his teacher. When I offered myself as a resource (offering to vet resources or see about a student teacher situation), she asked if I would have suggestions on how to help her make her math instruction more constructivist. I told her I’d love to come observe her instruction and we could collaborate from there. I don’t know if timed math worksheets will come up, but I know that I’ve made myself a resource in my kid’s classroom, and with any luck, it will help support his teacher’s continued professional growth, and might even help other kids both this year and in the future.

*Those who have been around math education for awhile are well aware of the argument between “fluency” (aka speed and accuracy in computation) and “conceptual understanding” (the why of math). We colloquially call it “The Math Wars.” As a caveat, I’d like to here state that my aversion to Mad Minute Worksheets is not an outright rejection of fluency in mathematics, but rather a desire for fluency to be developed in students in ways that don’t make them hate math. If you’re into reading research papers, check out the seminal paper by Bethany Rittle-Johnson and Martha Wagner Alibali (1999) that investigates how both fluency and conceptual understanding can be leveraged to best support student learning.

 

What can we learn from Aubrey, Amy, and my cousin? That there are children in this world who have so much to offer and yet we constrain their amazing thinking by expecting them to speed to immediate fluency. In the time that they are memorizing facts, they don’t yet have enough time to develop the depth of their thinking to make fluency come more easily. But what if we give the time to engage in that complex thinking so that fluency comes more easily? So that they don’t come home frustrated and hating math? So that they say “I can’t remember what 11×12 is but I remember that 12×12 is and can go from there.” We can do this. And it starts by thinking about those intersecting circles of experience and by talking more with moms/scholars like Aubrey, Amy, Priya, and my cousin so that we can do better for our kids.