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UDL in 15 Minutes podcast with Lauren Helberg

Not So Fast: When Quick Thinking Doesn’t Belong

During this week’s episode, high school math teacher Lauren Helberg tells a great story of how she personally connected with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). You’ll want to hear the whole story, but the tale reminds us that speed does not equal capability or, for that matter, intelligence. Before we move forward, let me break that down a bit. If you’re a school psychologist, special educator, or counselor, you’re likely familiar with the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and/or the Woodcock-Johnson III. These are assessments used in many schools to determine a student’s eligibility for special education services. If you are familiar, you’re probably saying, “Wait a second, Loui. Processing speed is part of both of these assessments!” Yup, you’re right. But in both cases, it is not a standalone component. Processing speed is part of a composite score. Why does that matter? Processing speed it is part of a larger set of assessment areas; processing speed alone does not determine intelligence. Also, processing speed is part of our variability and variability is highly dependent on the context. Where you are, what you’re doing, and your relationship with the learning environment will affect your processing speed. Unfortunately, though, processing speed is often the lynch pin in academic scoring both in the classroom and in standardized testing. Lauren was left wondering what she could have demonstrated on a standardized exam had she been given the time.

Back in 2014, Edutopia published a piece about research by Dr. Jo Boaler and it included the following quote from her article, “Timed math tests can discourage students, leading to math anxiety and a long-term fear of the subject.” Boy, did that comments section blow up! Both sides of the math-timed-test issue came roaring to life. One side was with Dr. Boaler and the other argued (among other things) that timed tests improve math fluency. One teacher reasoned that students who struggled with speed-based fluency (e.g., quick multiplication) would struggle in higher level math. Interestingly, when Linda Gojak was the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, she wrote a piece reminding educators that math fluency is much more than speed and accuracy. Her argument was the need to build a better balance between computational understanding and procedural skill rather than focusing on speed. In fact, her position is echoed in the updated Position of the NCTM answering question, “What is procedural fluency, and how do we help students develop it?” What we’re getting to here is an agreement that fluency is important, but (a) there needs to be a stronger focus on procedure rather than computation, and (b) we need to quit using processing speed as the ultimate indicator for success.

I’ll give you another example. Let’s say you typically give your students timed math tests to assess their basic skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). The more they complete correctly, the higher their score. I guarantee that if you use the same test to assess those skills over time, you have at least one student who memorizes the answers. That was me. I got the answers down really quickly and I got more of them correct over time, so I was rewarded. I didn’t care if I started off with a low score, I had a strategy that helped me achieve the goal (get more answers correct each time). My teachers thought my speed and accuracy showed how well I knew my basic skills. Nope. What I had was the gift for memorization. I didn’t apply that gift to memorizing the multiplication table, I applied it to that single sheet of paper because those timed tests held a lot of sway in classroom capital (i.e., whether your name was listed as a Super Star).

My strategy got me all the way through grade school and did not prepare me for junior high algebra. Yikes! And what about those times when I did have to perform my facts on homework, tests and quizzes? I was frustrated at how slow I was, but that didn’t matter as much because the reward wasn’t attached to being timed (and having my name on the Super Star bulletin board). I knew how to do the computations, but didn’t have the speed. Honestly, I gained a false sense of success that came crashing down in about 8th grade. I would have been much better served had my teachers focused on procedural fluency.

And that takes me right to the UDL framework. If you look under the Principle of Action & Expression, move into the guideline of Expression & Communication, there is a checkpoint labeled, “Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance.” Within the first two sentences describing this checkpoint, CAST reminds us that students “often need multiple scaffolds to assist them as they practice and develop independence.” UDL does NOT tell us to move away from fluency; rather, UDL tells us that we need to offer our students different pathways to achieve that fluency. UDL also tells us that we need to turn our eyes and energies toward building opportunities for procedural fluency. You can and should have games that encourage fluency building. Students need a non-threatening way to build those skills. At the same time, though, help them shift into procedural fluency where they tie those skills to application. Ultimately, the focus is to create learning opportunities where students gain knowledge via application. That is the route that takes them on the journey toward becoming expert learners.