At some regrettable point in time, math and speed became intertwined:
The faster you can do math, the better you are at it.
This common belief contains two key misconceptions about math:
- Math is about calculations (the actual addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division)
- How fast you can do the calculations matters
Unfortunately, these misconceptions create the foundation of many math classrooms and households. Children are given worksheets with rows and rows of math problems. The children who complete the worksheet the fastest are the ‘smartest’ or ‘best at math.’
This focus on speed and memorization is not only misguided, it also has powerful consequences. Let’s start with the brain science. Math facts are held in the working memory of our brain. When we feel pressure, like the countdown of a timer, it becomes difficult for us to access the information stored in our working memory.
You’ve probably had this experience before: in a timed or stressful situation, you know you know something, but for some reason, you can’t recall it. Now imagine having that experience every single day for years in the same context: math. It’s easy to see how a child who struggles with speed and memorization quickly develops the belief that they’re bad at math. Unfortunately, it is these moments of fear and anxiety that tend to overshadow any positive math experiences.
The second consequence of this focus on speed is a disinterest in, or even hatred of, math. If children spend the majority of their math experience calculating as quickly as possible, children will come to believe that math is calculating as quickly as possible. This focus alienates children who value learning deeply, working with others, and exploring ideas – all of which are integral to math!
Case Study: ‘You know this!’
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the things you say to your child matter – a lot. I helped with a Family Math Night a few months ago at a local elementary school, and I paid close attention to the parent-child interactions. There is one moment in particular I want to highlight, precisely because it is a perfect example of how a small phrase can have a powerful impact.
I was tasked with the number line station, which went like this: each child rolled two dice to get two numbers, chose an operation to apply to those two numbers, and then placed the result on the number line. A boy in third grade came up to the station with his mom, rolled two dice – let’s say he got a 3 and a 7 – and chose multiplication as his operation. He wrote his two numbers down and stared at them for a while. After a moment, his mom said, “You know this!”
This parent was clearly being supportive, and I’m grateful she was participating in math night with her son. However, she didn’t realize that her encouragement contained two implicit messages: you’re taking too long and you should already know this. Whether or not the boy actually knew the fact, he was just reminded that being good at math means being able to remember math facts quickly – which was, in the moment, difficult for him.
I provide this example not to make you feel bad about things you may have said or done, but to highlight how fragile children’s math confidence really is. Every phrase either adds a little or takes a little way from the belief that they can be successful at math.
Adding Understanding, Subtracting Speed
One of the best ways to disentangle speed from math is through your words. Instead of praising your child for how fast they completed their math homework, ask them to explain their thinking. Interestingly, students who excel in speedy calculations often struggle when asked to express their understanding in words or pictures. On the other hand, if your child is slow to answer a problem, give them time to process the problem before jumping in to intervene. Then, praise them for approaching the problem thoughtfully.
Additionally, emphasize to your child that math is more than just calculating as fast as possible. Instead of drilling math facts, talk to your child about how you use math in your everyday life. Bring math talk into daily activities, like going to the grocery store or mowing the lawn. When you talk about your work, include how math is part of what you do every day (and if you think this doesn’t apply to you, check out this post).
Part of raising a child who loves math is squashing the belief that being good at math means being fast at math. Every one of your messages and actions has the potential to either enforce the connection between math and speed or tear it down. By emphasizing understanding over speed, your child will have more opportunities to feel successful and see math for the beautiful subject that it really is.
- Positive Messaging: Based on your child’s relationship with speed, use the Understanding Messages from the above table to push their understanding or praise their thoughtfulness.
- Provide think time: While it may feel awkward at first, challenge yourself to wait before jumping in to help your child with a math problem.
- Expand your own knowledge: Reflect on your own beliefs about the relationship between math and speed. If you want more specifics around the brain science and research, check out the resources at YouCubed’s Depth Not Speed web page.
- Build the understanding behind number facts: Instead of drilling your child with flash cards, check out these awesome math activities from YouCubed that build number facts in a way that focuses on understanding instead of speed:
Boaler, J. (2015). Fluency Without Fear: Research Evidence on the Best Ways to Learn Math Facts. Retrieved from https://www.youcubed.org/evidence/fluency-without-fear/.
Gray, E., Tall, D. (1994) Duality, Ambiguity and Flexibility: A Proceptual View of Simple Arithmetic, Journal of Research in Math Education 25(2). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238663171_Duality_Ambiguity_and_Flexibility_A_Proceptual_View_of_Simple_Arithmetic.