August 27, 2014

I Like 5 in a Row

I remember—too clearly!—what it felt like to open my math homework after coming home from school at 3:30. Or possibly from the school paper at 6:00. Or from the grocery store at 8:00. I was tired, math was the most tedious of all subjects, and there were so many exercises.
How many problems? 38? Turn the page. Heave a sigh. Whisper an expletive. 72! Pull the crushed spiral out of my backpack. Maybe we only have to do the odd-numbered ones tonight?... No such luck.
My son is the same way with math exercises. Filling out a worksheet holds no satisfaction for him. When he used to look at a page of math exercises, I saw my own dread in his face.
This is one area where Khan really shines. Last night I had the kids review both the distributive property and finding greatest common factors—areas in which they had missed problems on Khan’s Mastery quizzes. For each topic they watched a five minute video and did some exercises.
But Khan doesn’t make the kids do 38 or 72 exercises. It says Get 5 correct in a row.

That’s it. Just five problems. If you get them all right.
If you get four and flub the fifth, well, now you have to do five more. You could be stuck there all night, but you could be done in five or ten minutes. And that’s a powerful motivator.
Nathaniel, who has never, ever been careful about arithmetic, not since the first time he hastily filled in the space under 2 + 1 on a worksheet, never-once-careful Nathaniel, is being careful. When it comes to the last problem, I can see him sweating, checking his work.
Checking his work.
Checking work reinforces math principles wonderfully. When he’s confirming that solving 9 X (5 + 4) is the same if he works it out as 45 + 36 as if he works it out as 9 X 9, he’s really learning what the distributive property means. I can remember worksheets and tests where my teachers used to write Check your work! optimistically across the top. Khan doesn’t, but doesn’t have to. It’s enough to say Get 5 correct in a row.

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