Spotlight on Math Facts Mastery

Greetings to all of our Lockhart Learning friends!

It has been a long time since I was in touch, for a really exciting reason.  About a year ago, administrators from a local Montessori school asked me to craft some professional development sessions for their teachers on the subject of math. During these sessions, we discussed many aspects of math, one of which was the (glacial?) rate at which children were internalizing math facts. The teachers expressed concern that children were doing the same activities as children a decade ago, but the without the same result. True mastery of math facts was coming at later ages than it once did, and with greater overt effort.

This is actually not a new issue – for several years now, teachers have been telling me that it seems harder for children to master their facts tables today.  I began to think about recent studies investigating the neuroscience of learning, wondering if “Brain Based Learning” might offer some insight into how we master “ready-recall” facts like math facts or  sight words.  I looked at methods that others (non-Montessorians) were using and then sat back down to revisit my math albums. The more I thought about it, the deeper my appreciation for Montessori’s brilliant materials became.  By virtue of the manipulatives, most of the children’s work would deeply connect those who were visual or kinesthetic learners to the concept of math facts.  At a time when the pace in the classroom was slower, when children could “rest” with a material, over time, they could literally explore their way to full mastery.

Today there are many things competing for children’s attention.  The materials are as brilliant, the lessons as elegant as they ever were, but shorter days, more enrichment, more testing,  and more pull-outs compete for children’s attention.  If we want children to master their facts while they are still interested in repeating to self-perfect, we have to make what we do speak to children as efficiently as possible.  We absolutely want children to explore their math facts for the express purpose of getting a sense of what the operation (+, x, -, ÷) means.  Soon thereafter, however, we want children to move from exploring to researching their facts and then internalizing them.

Today I am releasing the results of my year-long pursuit of optimal practices for guiding children to mastery: MAKING MATH FACTS MEMORABLE. This monograph presents a model for the predictable stages through which children move when learning their facts, and a correlative plan for lesson delivery. Lessons are largely traditional Montessori lessons, most of which have suggestions for ways to either gently extend the child’s work to stimulate more parts of the brain, or ways to provide laser focus on fact(s) to be internalized.  This is supplemented by fun kinesthetic activities designed to get even upper elementary children to repeat, and ideas for direct instruction on the patterns within math facts.  The monograph also proposes a structure for allowing children to mentor one another through the process, providing facts refreshers for those who have already achieved mastery and support for those who are just learning their facts.  Whether you choose to implement this structure and all of the lessons and activities within this monograph, or just use the ideas for fun new activities for internalizing math facts, you will be surprised to see how much more interest the children take in their facts.  And as we all know, the more fun they find in the work, the more time they spend on it, and the greater the learning.

This monograph has admittedly been a long time in coming.  There was a lot for me to learn!  One of the things that I am so pleased to be able to say, unequivocally, is that we can improve our children’s math fact knowledge and performance using nothing more than the materials that are undoubtedly already in your classroom or the room next door.  It is also exciting to say that teachers who choose to also implement the mentoring system will find that after the initial set-up, explaining the system to the children, the system will require no more time and no more record-keeping than the typical grill-and-drill methods that most classrooms are using today.  In fact, if you are willing to train the mentor children how to make entries into your record keeping system, you may actually experience an overall decrease in record-keeping requirements!

This afternoon, one of the teachers who participated in the very first professional development session a year ago, who implemented some of my earliest ideas on the subject, told me how pleased she was with the changes she made in her room last year.  Part of her story really touched my heart; she told be that her returning 2nd and 3rd year children were so excited to get back to working on math facts this fall; they were asking for someone to practice their slippery facts with them!  I think that is the first time I have ever heard a teacher say that her students were “so excited” to practice math facts – Montessori gold!

I hope that each of you has struck some of your own Montessori gold this fall in the vital work you do with children!





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