All of us have met math phobes—people who are afraid of math and feel that they’re bad at it. Math phobia is almost always acquired in large classroom settings, where any student can fall behind by inadvertently missing a critical skill or concept. Even if a tutor is called in to remedy the problem, a student’s self-perception around math has already sunk a few notches, often exacerbated by comparing themselves to others.
Most math educators agree that the main goal of learning math is application in daily life, such as handling and managing money, keeping track of time and of objects, and thinking generally (detecting patterns, problem solving). To be useful in real-life situations, concepts and skills must be readily accessible, the way fluent speakers have fast access to vocabulary, dancers to their next step, and singers to the exact note that comes next. Access to math knowledge must be instantaneous, too. In other words, fluent and automatic.
Fluency is the ability to do something easily and accurately, sometimes described as “second nature.” It is essential to playing a sport, reading music, and cooking well. It is an underpinning of any skilled performance. If we were to speak Spanish correctly and with a beautiful accent, but verrrrry slowwwwly because we take so much time to retrieve each word, we would not be fluent. It is the same with the skills that comprise math knowledge and their everyday use. If you are not fluent in two-digit addition and subtraction, you will have trouble figuring out if the change you receive at the store is correct; and if you are not fluent in multiplication facts, you might not try to figure out how much you are paying per square foot for your new home.
Fluency of component skills is the basis of a firm foundation of any competency, whereas a shaky foundation leads to instability, insecurity, and anxiety. But building math fluency must not be confused with the classroom administration of timed tests, where large groups of similar-level students are evaluated on the same skills with reminders that the clock is ticking. As Dr. Jennifer Ruef, an accomplished researcher in math education, correctly points out in her online piece, “How to Help Students Heal from ‘Math Trauma’,” emphasizing speed in the absence of conceptual understanding and real-life contextualization is counterproductive. Such tests often give rise to anxiety that interferes with working memory and optimal performance. The goal, Dr. Reuf explains, should be “sensemaking.” The issue, however, is how to achieve it.
Achieving fluency and automaticity always requires practice, and while practice isn’t always fun, it is always necessary for becoming truly competent at something. Queens Paideia regards fluency in the four operations and other core skills as indispensable to competency and progress. For that reason, QPS students do regular fluency training in their math facts—10 minutes per day of short, self-timed sprints of whatever subskill a student is working on. Because they are all working on different skills (the ones that are appropriate for each child), they compete not against each other but against how they did in a prior sprint, without regard for how anyone else is doing. Systematically promoting fluency while avoiding a pernicious set up that encourages students to compare themselves to others goes a long way to removing anxiety from the math education equation.
QPS students feel motivated by their skills sprints, and by their advancement toward mastery of a given skill. But they also need to know the larger goal of what they are doing and why it’s worth their effort. A solid math education requires not only fluency but also making math relevant. Thus, QPS fluency training sessions are separate from our daily main math sessions during which students work on concept building through discussion with the instructor, modeling, and practice. They do fun “application” projects like using geometry and proportional reasoning to recreate ancient circumference measurements of earth, using fractions for measuring cooking ingredients, and playing board games for which math know-how is helpful.
Students experience regularly how their growing math competency can be used in daily life, and how their fluency enables them to tackle higher levels of math–fractions, decimals, algebra, proportions, word problems….–unhampered by gaps, anxiety, and false narratives about who they are as math students.