Fluency for the Masses

I have a confession: I never really learned to type.  Granted, I can run off 50 or so words per minute, but I don’t “touch type.”  Sure, I know all about home keys and can type about half of my words without looking, but my errors go way up when I do this, and the whole process is slowed down.

This was very evident one morning last week.  I got up early to do some work at home, but I didn’t want to wake up the kids.  So…I tried typing without the lights on.  Two interesting things happened.  First, my work slowed down tremendously, because I kept having to go back and correct my errors.  And second, I found myself thinking less about what I was typing and more about how I was typing it.  I would not characterize my product that day as “high quality.”

This experience caused me to reflect on a discussion that I had had the previous day with a group of middle school teachers.  Our discussion turned toward what one teacher described as the “drill and kill” method of teaching math, and I couldn’t resist having them do an exercise.  In his book Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally¹, the late John Van de Walle spends a few pages developing the ideas of drill and practice.  At the heart of the discussion is his belief that drill and practice are really two separate things with different outcomes – not one thing that we do to kids.

We had the teachers brainstorm about each (drill and practice) individually.  They drew some wonderful analogies to music, knitting, and other areas of interest.  They began to see and understand the benefits of both.  What this comes down to for me is fluency.  Drill is great for building fluency – when students already have an efficient strategy for doing the problems; otherwise it is frustrating.  Practice is necessary to help students develop efficient strategies for doing things.

You could argue that my strategy for typing (one that involves closely watching my hands most of the time) is not efficient.  However, after years of practice and drill, I would consider myself a fluent typist.  If I wanted to learn to touch type, sitting at a computer day after day would not fix the problem.  I need some targeted practice to help me become efficient with this strategy,  and then day after day of drill before I would be truly fluent.

Think about your students next time you want to give that 100 problem worksheet.  Is it building fluency, or building frustration?  Do we want them to focus on what they are doing, or on how they are doing it?


¹Highly recommended reading.  The book discusses not only how to teach math, by why we should teach it that way.  IF the $100+ price tag is a bit much for you to swallow, check out the Teaching Student Centered Mathematics series by Van de Walle and LouAnn Lovin.  Mostly the same content as the $100 version, but broken into grade bands (K-3, 3-5, and 5-8; about $34 each) and without the pretty color pictures.