


The Washington Post
Is using a fidget
spinner for timed math problems helpful or harmful? People are really
talking about this.
By Valerie Strauss July 6
Children play with fidget spinners at a school in Bern, Switzerland.
(Alessandro Della Valle/European Pressphoto Agency)
As fidget spinners have become ubiquitous at schools this year, many
places have banned them while others have decided to try to use them
for educational purposes. Exactly how?
One example is giving students math problems to solve for as long as
the spinner keeps moving. That seems simple enough, but, as it turns
out, a plug for the practice via tweet got pushback. And so, the
question is being asked: Is using a fidget spinner for timed math
problems helpful or harmful, and, more broadly, does giving students
timed math practice lead to math anxiety?
Here to ask and answer the query are academics Daniel Ansari and Daniel
Willingham.
Ansari (@NumCog) is a renowned authority on the cognition of
mathematics at Western University in Canada, where he is the Canada
research chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience and principal
investigator at the Numerical Cognition Laboratory.
Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia,
where he has taught since 1992, and whose research focuses on the
application of cognitive psychology to K12 schools and higher
education. He was appointed in January by thenPresident Barack Obama
to be a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, an
independent and nonpartisan arm of the Education Department that
provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.
Willingham is the author of several books, including “Why Don’t
Students Like School?” and “When Can You Trust the Experts?” He also
blogs here, where this post was first published. He gave me permission
to republish it.
By Daniel Willingham and Daniel Ansari
Just in case you have been away from this planet for the last few
months, fidget spinners are the latest toy sensation. Some have
suggested (without any evidence) that this new gadget is “perfect for
children with attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism,
anxiety.” Although there’s no evidence for that, kids love them, which
has prompted a flurry of interest in possible educational applications
(see here), and educators have come up with creative ways of
integrating spinners into educational activities (when they are not
banning them, see here).
One such idea was the subject of a tweet by Dan Willingham on June
14th. The idea is simple: students use the spinner as a timer and try
to solve as many math fact problems as possible while it is spinning.
This seems to us a simple, harmless and perhaps even fun thing to do,
and most people on Twitter took it that way. Most, but not all.
Negative responses fell into two categories. One suggested that timed
practice would lead to math anxiety. The other suggested that this kind
of practice might legitimize the much maligned “drill and kill”
approach to teaching math.
If a teacher doesn’t like an activity, that’s obviously reason enough
not to use it as far as we’re concerned — we’re not in the business of
advocating for particular classroom work. But we can point to the
research literature bearing on the two common concerns, and based on
this research, we don’t think they have merit.
Regarding anxiety: This issue has been raised most prominently by
Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University. For example, she argued in
a recent blog that “timed tests are a major cause of this
debilitating, often lifelong condition.”
First, let’s note that the fidget spinner work sheet offers timed
practice, not timed assessment, which Boaler mentions. It seems to us
that in a zerostakes situation like a work sheet, the main agent of
anxiety would be social comparison, an issue that teachers have plenty
of experience handling.
Second, when it comes to timed assessments, the evidence for an anxiety
link is still lacking. Boaler cites Ramirez et al (2013) in her blog.
This article examined the relationship between working memory and math
anxiety and showed, perhaps counterintuitively, that math anxiety
impacts students with high working memory more than it does those with
relatively lower working memory capacity. The authors argue that
because math anxiety affects working memory, through intrusive thoughts
and ruminations (“I can’t do this,” “I am terrible at math”), that
students who typically use working memorydemanding strategies are hit
the hardest. These data say nothing about speeded math practice; the
measure of math achievement used by Ramirez et al was untimed.
In a review of Boaler’s book, “Mathematical Mindset,” Victoria Simms
(@DrVicSimms) writes that Boaler “discusses a purported causal
connection between drill practice and longterm mathematical anxiety, a
claim for which she provides no evidence, beyond a reference to ‘Boaler
(2014c)’ (p. 38). After due investigation it appears that this
reference is an online article which repeats the same claim, this time
referencing ‘Boaler (2014)’, an article which does not appear in the
reference list, or on Boaler’s website.”
Again, it seems obvious to us that if a teacher feels that this sort of
activity would make her students anxious, she won’t use it. But it’s
not accurate to claim that research shows that this sort of activity
generally makes students anxious.
What of the second concern, that students should focus on developing a
conceptual understanding of math rather than being able to recall math
facts speedily?
Arguments for speeded recall of math facts are not arguments against
building students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics. As
@MrReddyMath put it:
But cognitive scientists have long argued that there is an iterative,
bidirectional relationship between the development of procedural math
skills (such as being able to recall your math facts) and conceptual
understanding (such as understanding the inverse relationship between
addition and subtraction). That was the conclusion of the final report
of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in 2008.
It was also the conclusion of Professor Bethany RittleJohnson, a
developmental psychologist at Vanderbilt who has extensively researched
the relationship between procedures and concepts in math
learning. When asked about the debate regarding memorizing math
facts vs. developing conceptual understanding in a 2016 interview she
said,
“Actually, I think it’s a silly argument because the evidence is pretty
clear that children really need to do both things. Understanding is
superimportant, but understanding relies on knowing enough that you
can understand it. If you have to spend all your time figuring out what
two plus three is, then you can’t notice relationships between number
pairs, [for example].”
Practicing math facts should be one of the methods used to help
students build solid foundations to scaffold their learning of
mathematics.
Fine, but why, you might ask, apply the pressure of timing practice?
Does speed matter?
It does. When working a complex problem you not only want to pull
simple math facts from memory, you want to do so quickly, so that the
other work can proceed apace. Indeed, adults with stronger higherlevel
math achievement retrieve math facts faster (Hecht, 1999).
And speed matters not just in using math facts but in learning them.
Methe et al (2012) conducted a metaanalysis of interventions for basic
math in singlecase research and reported “we found interventions
involving practice under speeded conditions and a carefully controlled
instructional sequence produced the strongest effects,” echoing results
from Powell et al (2009) who reported that timed practice (vs. untimed)
was crucial to an intervention for struggling third graders to learn
math facts, and Fuchs et al. (2013) reporting similar results for first
graders.
It is clear, as is the case with any learning, that such speeded
practice of math facts must be adaptive and appropriate for the level
of the learning, and should be scaled gradually. And like everything
else in a classroom, it will ideally be engaging. That’s challenging
when you’re trying to develop automaticity, because it implies a
certain amount of repetition.
That’s why we liked the fidget spinner idea; it’s a little twist on a
familiar task. It won’t be to every teacher’s taste, but we can say
that there is no evidence it will prompt the problems that some feared.
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