Reflections on Dominating 5th Grade Math Speed Drills

August 21, 2022

I love it when people comment on my blog posts. I was inspired to write this post when my friend Rose Ann commented on my last post, recalling how the two of us were always highly competitive in the elementary school spelling bees and math speed drills. I look back and wonder what I took away from those kinds of contests and drills. I certainly learned that memorization was essential to learning. I learned that speed was highly valued. I learned that I was really good at math and pretty good at spelling. (Does anybody really need to know how to spell chrysanthemum?) And I learned that either it’s right and you stay standing, or it’s wrong and you shuffle back to your seat.

Unless you have a career as a Jeopardy contestant, life is not about speed or single chances. And in the half century since I was in elementary school, there has been some change in our classrooms.

We need to keep that change going in the right direction.

There are different perspectives on what is really learned in those types of exercises. Brian Regan (see below) has been one of my favorite comedians for years. His take on spelling bees is hilarious and sad. It’s worth four minutes of your time to click here and listen. My favorite part – the kid who is asked to spell CAT and says, “Cat. K-A-T. Cat. I’m outta here.” Get the humiliation over with. There’s a place for those who wish to compete in spelling bees, geography bees, and contests that reward memorization and quick thinking. But if you are looking for the best kind of classroom learning, the kind of learning that helps you lead a successful life, it’s about struggling, failing, getting feedback, struggling more, and eventually figuring it out.

Brian Regan Doing His Thing

Miley Cyrus put this perfectly in her song, The Climb

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, two highly regarded Stanford professors (that’s Jo Boaler in the center in the picture above!), have been researching and advocating for the climb for years. Angela Duckworth discussed the same idea in her very popular work, Grit. Hard work matters. Practice matters. (Sorry, Allen Iverson and Ted Lasso.) If you struggle to get better, you actually learn more in the process.

We parents and teachers should never emphasize speed. We should be telling students and children that with effort, they can become better at math, better at reading, and better at whatever they put their minds and their efforts to. This is Dweck’s concept of growth mindset. Our intelligence and ability are not fixed. We can get better. We can get more intelligent and more skilled.

I’ve known so many outstanding high school coaches who beautifully embrace growth mindset. When players did not run a play correctly, or when they were trying to learn a new technique to make them faster or stronger, these coaches would correct the student-athlete (sometimes gently, sometimes bluntly), then have them run the play or use the technique again. And again. And again. That’s how learning happens best. You try to do something that is not at all easy to do, get feedback, get better, get feedback, and so on until you reach your maximum potential. It is beautiful to watch.

But often those same coaches, when working with students in the classroom, will teach something, give a test on it, and then move on to the next topic whether the student learned it or not. They would never accept such failure as a coach.

Real learning does not involve students recalling something from memory, which can lead to spelling something wrong then taking the walk of shame back to their desk. Real learning endeavors to teach a challenging and useful skill or concept, then to find ways to help each student, encouraging them to work and struggle along the way, until they get closer and closer to mastery. If students can learn those concepts, they can figure things out on their own later.

I’m a pretty darn good memorizer. I know that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 degrees Celsius. (I will write a blog post one day about our refusal to adopt the metric system – we make things so much harder for ourselves by rebelling against the beauty and simplicity of the metric system – but I digress.) One day, Jill was cooking and yelled out as her hand got hurt by escaping steam from a pot. Dawson and I both expressed our sympathy, then Dawson commented that it must have really hurt, as steam is hotter than boiling water. I didn’t know that fact, so naturally, I challenged my son on his statement. “So how hot is steam?” I asked. He said, “I don’t know, but it’s hotter than boiling water.” I asked how he knew that and he said, “It just makes sense. The water reaches 100 degrees Celsius, and the only reason it would change into steam would be that it has more heat than the boiling water.” I asked where he read that, and he said, “Nowhere. It just makes sense.” Being an amazing and trusting father, I immediately looked it up. And what-da-ya-know – he was right.

Memorization is nice, but it’s not the goal of learning. Understanding blows the doors off of memorization.

When students don’t get the concept at first, we need to stay with it, give them second chances, encourage their grit, and support their struggle. When a piece of writing is not what it should be, we need to teach students to grapple with the editing process and develop a never-ending desire for improvement.

It’s not about speed. It’s about embracing the challenge. Jo Boaler writes, “I work with a lot of mathematicians, and one thing I notice about them is that they are not particularly fast with numbers; in fact, some of them are rather slow. This is not a bad thing; they are slow because they think deeply and carefully about mathematics.”

So let’s embrace the climb. Let’s not give outstanding comedians like Brian Regan the fodder for jokes about bad teaching. Let’s believe that all students can get smarter. And let’s all join our students in the lifelong struggle to get better.


To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here


Grit, by Angela Duckworth

Mindset: A New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck

Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers, by Jo Boaler

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  1. Bill Sampson says:

    Hi Mike:

    I do remember “Hollywood” Henderson, a lineback for the Dallas Cowboys, remarking that another player was so dumb he could not spell CAT if he was spotted the C and the T. Apropos of probably nothing but I did win a couple of elementary school spelling bees – at least in part because I could figure out how some words I did not even know SHOULD be spelled. Now we have google so we can misspell (or is it mispell?) 😁 anything. I know that you know that that word is near the top of misspelled words.

    Your thesis is spot on. I sometimes wish a lot of things had not been so easy for me. The hard work certainly would have paid off. I’ll digress to yet another great Bruin. The legendary men’s volleyball coach Al Scates, who had more titles even than Wooden, had his teams run only a handful of plays. But, they practiced them relentlessly so that they could execute them perfectly when it counted. They did so. Practice does not make perfect but perfect practice does. It did not hurt that he was able to recruit great athletes but that is not enough. Al was a school teacher even while he was coaching national champions. Thanks for an early morning dose of inspiration.

    Best to you and Joe Bruin. Good luck in your new gig which I assume is in full swing by now. Don’t let the commute get you down.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I did not know that Hollywood Henderson story, and I love it. I knew of other stories, and I much prefer this one. Thanks too for the Al Scates story. Perfect execution matters. I’ll tell Josie you said hi! We start school next week in PYLUSD, and I can’t wait!

  2. Julie Baker Menke says:

    I really like the Grit book and told my students constantly that effort counts twice. But I also loved the National Geographic Geo Bee to encourage the love of Geography but they cancelled it during the pandemic:(

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I’m all in on watching the national spelling bee and geography bee. I’ve even judged some school spelling bees. They are fun and the student are
      amazing! But they should be voluntary, with only students who want to compete being in them. And I’ll add to that, being a good memorizer can be a wonderful supplement to being a person who puts in the effort. But it takes both. Thanks for your comment, Julie!

  3. Susan Scheding says:

    A speed story:
    My college French teacher came into class one day with 100 index cards. Each had a numeral from 1 to 100 on it. He held the cards up so we could see one number, then picked out students who were to give him each number in French that he held up. Students stumbled pretty quickly. He then nodded at me. I gave him several correct numbers in French, but he was going too fast, so I just began shouting out whatever number came into my head. Faster and faster he went, with students beginning to laugh and me throwing out any old number (I think I yelled out a few in Spanish). He finally looked at the number he had just shown me and threw the cards in the air.
    Speed is overrated.
    Keep climbing.
    btw, prefixes in English are ALWAYS just tacked on to the original word – mis+spell. Not so w/suffixes.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I love having friends who know and love their grammar. Thanks for the laugh about your French escapades. There’s a lot of “do the right thing” in you, Susan, but there’s plenty of mischief too. I love it all.

  4. Kevin J McCarthy says:

    I am with you Mike. I do love Jo but you know I just don’t like the word struggle. We need a better word, something less negative, to deploy here about what you should expect from yourself both in classrooms and in life -when solving problems. “Problems” that are solved quickly, without struggle, were never really problems in the first place. Solving real problems requires maneuvering through unclear territory -failing and creating and trying again – towards a clearer understanding. I don’t think we should call that struggle. Its shaming. It suggests we should have known the solution in the first place if we now have to struggle to get there. So which kid wants to struggle? K-A-T – I am out of here.
    I want to join our students in the lifelong struggle, no journey, to get better.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful response, Kevin. Common words are struggle, grapple, and wrestle, but they all have those connotations that you are wondering about. I love the term journey, but it’s somewhere in between a Sunday picnic and a Frodo Baggins trip into Mordor. There’s a great line from Wesley in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” I knew a math teacher once, and his students would say that that teacher made them struggle quite a bit. But I’ve never seen higher test scores in Algebra I. Let’s keep talking.

      1. Kevin J McCarthy says:

        I like maneuvering… suggests a taking a step and then reconsidering and then taking another.

        Daring Greatly – one of my favorites
        “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

        1. Mike Matthews says:

          We will continue the search. And that TR quote is one of my absolute favorites as well. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Whitt says:

    Love it!

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