How should WE teach and assess fluency?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the MTBoS about fluency.  I think Jamie Duncan is right. It is that time of year.  Triggered by state tests and end of the year expectations, some teachers start to panic and grasp at the paper thin promise of flash cards and algorithms. “If I just show them how to do it, they can apply it to the test.” “I don’t have time for deep understanding. The test is next week.”  I could write a whole different blog post describing my opinions about state assessments, but I am going to take a different approach.  Instead, I would like to talk about ownership and agency.

In our district, we have been working on transitioning to a standards based system of teaching and learning.  For the past six years, we have been learning to speak the language of the CCSSI for math. This year, we started to transition our report cards from letter based to standards based.  It has been a challenging, enlightening, rewarding, frustrating, and overwhelming experience.  Some of the stickiest conversations we have had revolve around teaching, assessing, and reporting whether a student is fluent with their ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

I have facilitated countless professional development sessions on the importance of using and understanding the properties of operations.  I have led book studies on Number Talks and Number Sense Routines. I have modeled number talks using images and numbers. I have shared  videos from Graham Fletcher and articles by Jo Boaler. Every teacher has access to Number Talks by Sherry Parish, the Minilessons series by Catherine Twomey Fosnot and Willem Uittenbogaard, and the Mastering the Facts series by Susan O’Connell and John San Giovanni. Our district purchased multi-user licenses for a strategy based Computational Fluency Screener from K-5 Math Teaching Resources and integrated the resource into our curriculum maps.   I have organized and led K-12 summer leadership institutes using books like Building Powerful Numeracy.  My colleagues have led book studies with books like Classroom Discussions and Intentional Talk. In short,  we have spent a lot of time discussing fluency in our district.

Or have we?

Recently, I asked myself, “have we been discussing it or have I just been showing people how it should be taught and assessed?”

I thought about this for a while and I realized that I have  been trying to solve a problem without collectively identifying what the problem is.  Why was I doing this?  Because I was terrified to give up control. I thought, “I can’t ask teachers to identify expectations for teaching and assessing fluency!  What if they don’t say what I want them to say? What if they decide to use timed tests and flash cards? I have to show them all the evidence and then tell them how we should do it because I am the math coach who has all the background knowledge.”   I was scared so I just kept professionally developing everyone and avoiding tough conversations.

A few weeks ago,  I came to the realization that I was never going to get people to change the way they teach and assess fluency if I didn’t meet them where they are and give them a voice. I was at a second grade team meeting and the teachers were discussing what the words “from memory” meant in this standard:

Fluently add and subtract within 20 using mental strategies.2 By end of Grade 2, know from memory all sums of two one-digit numbers.

The conversation started to make me uncomfortable:

  • “From memory means they have their facts memorized. They may have learned the fact by using strategies, but now they have it memorized.”
  • “If we don’t time them, then how will know if they are efficient?”
  • “Is it okay if a student is asked to solve 8+7 and he/she says, “I know 7+7 is 14 plus one more is 15 or does he/she have to say “15” without using a strategy?”
  • “If they are using a strategy than they don’t know it from memory.”
  • “Isn’t it more important that they understand and use  the properties?”
  • “But eventually the strategies should lead them to knowing it from memory?”
  • “But some kids are just always going to take more time and it doesn’t mean they have less understanding.”

I wanted to just tell everyone what to do.  I wanted to say, “We aren’t going to use timed tests. “From memory” is different from “memorization”.  Let me tell you why.”  In that moment, I realized that I had been telling them why for years and, yet, they were still asking the same questions. And, do I really know the answers to these questions?

I decided to put the question out on Twitter.  Being a part of the Math Twitter Blogoshpere has helped me see the importance of being vulnerable. So, in the middle of our second grade team meeting, I projected my computer screen and asked Twitter for help. We sat and watched as the feedback poured in. You can click the picture below to see the whole thread.

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 10.06.33 AM

We didn’t get to see all the responses during our meeting because  we were close to the end of our meeting time. However, in that moment, I realized that whatever we decide about fluency expectations, we need to decide it together. I asked the administrative team if I could have two hours of our early release day on March 17th to facilitate a discussion about teaching and assessing fluency. They said, “sure.”

I met with the elementary interventionists and, together, we planned the two hours.  We decided that our goal was to bring everyone to the table and find out what we, as individuals, think about teaching and assessing fluency. Then, the next time we meet, we can develop a collective definition of fluency and expectations for teaching and assessing it.

One of the first things we did was ask each teacher to explain how he/she defined fluency. Then, we did something transformative. We asked teachers to read each other’s responses.

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 10.15.22 AM

You can read our responses by clicking on this link. If you do take time to read the responses, please take a minute to respond in the comments:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?

After people had some time to read and reflect on their colleague’s perspectives,  we showed them  Graham Fletcher’s ignite talk about the difference between “from memory” and “memorization”. Next, we had them choose an article to read about fluency. After they read the article, they were asked to find quotes from their article that addressed teaching and/or assessing fluency.  We asked them to document those quotes in a google form.

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 10.20.47 AM

Finally, we asked them to reflect on some pivotal question:

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 10.27.11 AM

As a school group, we asked everyone to look at all the evidence we had gathered and reflect on whether we have a consistent vision of teaching and assessing fluency. We asked them to identify practices in our district that are aligned and are not aligned and record them on chart paper

We asked everyone to fill out a form with recommended next steps.  Some people said we should establish a committee of  representatives and some people said we should continue to do the work as a whole group. Some people were frustrated that some of their colleagues still thought timed tests and flash cards were acceptable. Some people wondered how we assess fluency without timed tests. Some people resented having to be a part of this conversation because they think, “I know what I am doing. Why do I have to worry about what everyone else is doing?”

I think they wonder, why do I have to be accountable for what happens in other classrooms and other buildings?  Collaboration is confusing, laborious, and rife with conflict. Collaboration often causes feelings of vulnerability and humility. Collaboration requires defending your perspective and exposing yourself to hard questions about what you believe. Collaboration takes a long time. I have asked myself the same question, “why do I have to listen to other people talk about timed tests and fact cards when I don’t agree with those practices.”  I think the answer lies in the fundamental idea that teaching is a collaborative effort.

I closed the session by saying, “I have a clear vision for what I believe it looks like to teach and assess fluency, but I realized that my vision can only take us so far.  We are a collaborative group and what we do in our individual classrooms impacts what our colleagues  do in their classrooms. We have the same students. I can’t, and won’t, stand here and define fluency for you. We have to establish fluency expectations together because we can’t hold each other accountable for a vision that is vague and misaligned.”

I think our next step is to create a vision. It might take us a little while, but it will be ours.


One thought on “How should WE teach and assess fluency?

  1. Wow! As someone who has spent a lot of time trying to impact the way mathematics is taught in my building, you have given me a way to begin the process with integrity and in a way that may stick. Thank you for being vulnerable in sharing this. I am your newest follower.


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