Revolutionizing Math Education: FactFreaks Founder's Innovative Approach

This is a summary of a podcast by Bill Davidson featuring FactFreaks founder, Steve Hare, which can be listened to here: Centering the Pendulum Episode 98

Bill and Steve met on Twitter and soon realized that in many ways they were like-minded regarding math education. As a brief recap, let’s cover a few of the key points made in the recording of this podcast.

As Steve said, he really appreciates the name of the podcast because there is currently a war in math education, progressive (more inclusive and cooperative with freedom of student choice) versus traditional (direct instruction with drill and practice). While traditional is closer to providing actual learning, the flaw is that it relies too much on the teacher as the dispenser of wisdom and can easily leave many students baffled. Both believe that the best teachers are bridging tradition and progressive education.

Steve believes, as Bill does, the way to succeed on a large scale is to be centered; all students should have conceptual understanding of math as well as fluency.

But therein lies the problem. It’s impossible for one teacher to provide that for a room-full of diverse students, each having different needs and being in different places on the learning scale.

So, where to start? At the beginning. Literally.

Bill asked why Steve created FactFreaks. It was in response to a multi-complex problem (there are hundreds of basic math facts, it’s incredibly easy to make a simple error in math and end up with the wrong answer, and without speed a student is unlikely to do well on tests or be able to keep up with classroom instruction). The answer? Hardwire the basic facts into the brain for instant recall and those problems disappear.

Steve was familiar with computer programming and thought that if he wrote a program that randomized the facts for a timed minute, it would replace speed tests in his classroom with a new “worksheet” each time replacing grading with a score at the end.

The ah-ha moment came when Steve thought, “But a fact is only a fact when it’s right. Can I stop the clock and re-start if they get a wrong answer? Wouldn’t that be frustrating?” Probably, but he decided to try it out in his classroom and was shocked to enjoy the organic creation of a competitive environment not only with other students (“You got a 39? I can beat that!”), but also with themselves (“No way – I’m playing again, I’m going to get higher than my last score”). And so, the tradition of Freaky Fridays became a time of fast-paced, involved learning for each class. The more they play, the more they learn.

"The thing that makes FactFreaks different from other apps like this is that it insists on 100% accuracy. If you get a fact wrong, it bumps you out of the game, and the whole idea is how many facts can you complete in a minute? Since it only measures accurate facts, it makes it possible for kids to be able to compare their performance to their previous performance in a very tangible way, because it's a single number."

Bill wanted to know about the 400 basic math facts. What does that encompass?
The answer: It's everything from zero plus zero all the way up to 81 divided by nine. I use “mastery” of 40 correct answers in one minute based on the old NCTM definition. But let me tell you, on a laptop using a keypad, the highest score that I know of is 133 in Scrambler (which is crazy hard as a mix of all the operations being randomly generated). Now if that doesn’t prove that these facts can be imbedded into memory and instantly recalled, I don’t know what does!

Steve also added that there is a Basic Training component to the game for kids just starting out, which is still a minute, but if they get one wrong the game will keep going. "At the end it will tell them how many they got wrong, and, and at the same time it always shows the correct answer so they learn as they play. If your kids are just starting out and they don't know the answer, just have them call out the fact and give them the answer. That's a great way for them to learn it."

Steve went on to talk about how frustrating it was for him as a teacher at times: “I was really tired of trying to teach more complex concepts like simplifying fractions or adding fractions with different denominators and kids getting stuck on the basic math facts. You're not gonna be working with complex fraction operations if you don't know that three times four is 12.”

As he explained his method of teaching during Covid, largely influenced by John Sweller’s book Efficiency in Learning, it became obvious to Bill that Steve had created a ladder of learning from the lower grades to middle school.

Steve confirmed this by saying that technology allows for delegation of the process of mastery learning. "We can offload the process over to the students as long as we hit them in the goldilocks zone where it’s not too hard, not too easy, and they move along at their own pace. It’s amazing to watch a room full of students each quietly working on their own and coming to you only when they have a question. It’s more like tutoring and is the kind of teaching we’ve all dreamt of."

We've had this war between guide at the side, sage on the stage, and I happen to think that there's a possible third way to go here, which I would characterize as sage at the side.

Steve, as an introvert, knows many students like himself; he likes to go at his own pace, is not a fast thinker, and can be easily intimidated. He knows that he is only a teacher when a student learns, and he wants every student to be a learner.

Today Steve is working with his son on a project that will change math education in a way we never thought was possible. Follow him on Twitter (@sharemath) for tips and updates as the project unfolds! And please, have your child/students join the free FactFreaks movement and share it with others!

Diane Hare

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