Friday, October 9, 2009

Just The Facts!

The students must know the facts.  Yes.
The students must have addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division mastered.  Yes.
The students must be held accountable for the facts every year or they will not retain them.  Yes.

The great facts debate was on this week.  The beginning of the year fact assessment revealed that students in general need to practice their facts.  Some teachers felt that they should already know them and basic facts are something we should not be teaching. Some thought they should just know them because they learned them in second and third grade.

We all know the purpose and the need for students to master their basic arithmetic facts.  We all know why they need to have computational fluency.  This is the foundation for being quick and accurate when calculating math problems.  Just as readers need to be fluent in their reading so they are able to comprehend the text, math students need to fluent to solve the higher order problems they encounter.

I posed this question to the class: "When was the last time you practiced addition and subtraction facts?"
The answers were overwhelmingly second and third grade.  As they were completing their facts tests I heard students mumbling, "I need to practice these."

I was glad to hear that.

I told the students that it is okay to not have the speed and accuracy yet.  I told them it is not their fault. I told them that they will master these facts.  I told them that they will be held accountable for these facts all year long. They will need to be quick.  They will need to practice.  They will be fine.

We can't expect students to know and retain information if we don't continually hold them accountable.  We need to have high expectations, but fair high expectations.  We need to bridge the gap from grade to grade and expect the facts to be a part of the curriculum every year.

There is a wonderful article from Scholastic on math fluency.  This article details why memorizing the facts is so important for higher-order math skills.  Here is an excerpt from the article detailing brain activity during math:

"Recent research in cognitive science, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has revealed the actual shift in brain activation patterns as untrained math facts are learned (Delazer et al., 2003). As predicted by Dehaene (1997, 1999, 2003), instruction and practice cause math fact processing to move from a quantitative area of the brain to one related to automatic retrieval. Delazer and her colleagues suggest that this shift aids the solving of complex computations that require “the selection of an appropriate resolution algorithm, retrieval of intermediate results, storage and updating in working memory” by substituting some of the intermediate steps with automatic retrieval (Delazer et al., 2004)."

I am looking forward to seeing their progress.  Let's get the brain shift moving. I can't wait for the students to feel the pride of being quick and accurate based on independently practicing the facts and being held accountable.


  1. You're so right, Tim! They need speed and accuracy in literacy as well. Imagine what it would be like if we got a crew of kids that had things like math facts, basic spelling and punctuation, automatic strategies for attacking multi-syllable words. Hey? Wasn't that what we taught in lower elementary?! Where'd all that go, anyway? I'm sure our own research shows that if you don't use it, it's gone!

  2. Isn't science a great thing? Just when you're beginning to doubt your intuition, along comes solid research! Hang in:)