Why is a gifted student having trouble with Rocket Math?

Question: Hi, Dr. Don! Just had a question recently from a parent of a gifted child whose son is having a lot of difficulty doing Rocket Math! He understands almost everything conceptually in math (in the 99% on national testing) but he is not being successful working with a partner on his math facts. Have you had this problem in other places? I’m not sure if the problem is he really can’t focus on the facts, he’s stubborn and doesn’t like details (big picture thinker), etc. He’s a very social kid so the partnering doesn’t seem to be the problem. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions you might have that I could give this mother. She says that he is fine at home doing his facts with her without a timer. But I don’t like the idea of excusing any student from doing this valuable practice. Thanks for your thoughts. Linda

Answer: I’ve blogged a bit on some of these issues elsewhere on the Rocket Math website, but let me try to be more specific here. First, gifted kids are stunned to find out that they have to work hard to memorize math facts. They probably need three or four days of practice—which to them seems like failure.  They are like an athletic kid who excels easily at every sport but finds he needs to work out with weights as much as a klutz to get to be able to lift heavy weights—his natural talent doesn’t help in this instance. So kids who’ve never had to work to learn things before, really are annoyed by having to practice several days in a row.  But it is really good for them!

How is mom practicing with him at home? Can she video him doing the test “untimed?”  If the child is “writing facts” and “without a timer” then he may be figuring out facts over and over—but is not getting to instant recall. That’s why the oral peer practice is so critical—if there is even a slight hesitation the child is to repeat the fact three times, back up three problems and come at it again—until the answer comes with no hesitation. There is a fundamental difference between instant recall of facts from memory and strategies to come to the answer by thinking it through. My parent letter addresses how to practice.  On the other hand, if the student is able to write the answers to math facts at a fast enough rate to complete 40 problems in a minute, but only when he thinks he is not being “timed” then he needs to learn how to do the same thing when he is being timed.

If he is not learning with the daily practice, we have to ask, “Why not?”  Social kids sometimes socialize instead of practicing. Social kids also can convince their partner not to do the correction procedure. Or they just say the answers instead of the whole problem and the answer. Any of those things would result in not successfully learning the facts. The teacher would need to monitor the quality of the practice. My experience has been that when students are “stuck” or “having difficulty” even just one session of practice done the right way rigorously (with me) and they suddenly improve enough to pass or to recognize they can pass the next day with another session of rigorous practice.

Last of all, sometimes the writing goals are off because of some glitch in how you gave the writing speed test.  So the student might know the facts well enough but not be able to write them fast enough to pass the tests.  If the student can answer 40 facts in a minute in the current set (just saying the answers without having to say the problems) then the facts are learned to automaticity—and the goal in writing should be lowered to whatever the student has done to this point.

Hope this helps. You are right not to excuse this student from learning math facts to automaticity. He might be a stellar mathematician someday if he learns his facts well enough that math computation is always easy for him. If math computation remains slow or laborious he won’t like it enough to pursue it as a career.

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