Knowing your students well

Crucial If we are to successfully teach students, we must help them develop automaticity in basic skills.

Consider the following scenarios. Do they echo with your own experiences as a teacher? Do they remind you of other situations where you wondered, “God, what is happening in my class?”

In Class 3, the Science teacher is taking a class on the Water Cycle. She wants to get the students to read the content while teaching the lesson. However, when the children are asked to read, most of them struggle to read most of the words. Some, in fact, find it difficult to read basic words like ‘could’ and ‘should’. The teacher is frustrated and reads the lesson aloud herself. She is at a loss, not knowing if she should teach new content or get children to read basic English words. 

More than half of a Class 4 Maths session is unable to complete a division problem. The teacher finds that these children can’t recall a basic multiplication like 8 times 7. She is unsure if she should get children to learn multiplication tables or just move ahead with division and hope the children somehow pick up the multiplication tables later.

If these scenarios resonate with you, you are not alone. The teaching field has been inundated with new-age ideas, some of which have created villains out of procedures that are downright commonsensical and fundamental to the process of learning. This is where the understanding of automaticity is critical for teachers.  

Learning and automaticity 

Automaticity is the ability to do things automatically, without having to think about them at a conscious level. For example, if we ask a child what 8 times 7 is and she starts adding 8 seven times, we quickly understand that she will not be able to solve multiplication and division problems easily. Or for example, if we ask her to read a passage in English and she reads the word as ‘a-l-s-o’ and not as ‘also’, we know that with her reading at this level, comprehension is a far cry. This simply implies that if children don’t know the basics to the point of doing it automatically without thinking, then they cannot perform more complicated tasks. They will be stuck trying to figure out the basic elements.

This may not be apparent to an adult. So, let us look at how you first started driving a car. All your attention was on the steering wheel, gears, accelerator, brakes, the side mirrors, the rear mirror, the
traffic lights, the people around and the road in front. You were worried about how to coordinate all these elements. But as you got comfortable with the steering wheel, brakes, accelerator and gears, changing these became an automatic behaviour. You could now focus on seeing the road ahead and could observe the traffic lights and people around without much anxiety.  

Much of learning in young children is similar. If they don’t know the frequently-occurring words or if they are weak in their basic math calculations, then they will not be able to move on to more challenging tasks. If children know the basic math facts or basic vocabulary really well, then they can do these basics automatically and the brain can focus on solving the maths problem or making sense of sentences. 

Memorisation matters

To better comprehend the significance of automaticity, we need to take a look at the brain, our learning centre. The brain has two sites —– working memory and long-term memory. The long-term memory is where all factual information is stored, the seat of automaticity. The working memory is where the manipulation of information happens. 

We have to remember that the working memory can hold only a few things at a time. So if the working memory is occupied with figuring out how to read basic words, then all their attention and working memory is being spent on struggling to read those words. The brain is not allocating any resources to reading the complete sentence and making sense of it. This is what results in poor reading comprehension. It is the same even in Maths. When given a problem like ‘18 + 29’ or ‘36 x 7,’ children are trying to count ‘8 + 9’ on their fingers instead of immediately knowing a math fact like ‘8 + 9=17.’ Similarly, not knowing ‘6 x 7’ and trying to figure it out gets children stuck. Because children’s working memory is occupied with basic calculations like doing ‘8 + 9’ on their fingers and trying to figure ‘6 x 7,’ they are unable to do these basic sums. 

When a child sees an age-appropriate word, he or she should be able to automatically say the word. When he or she sees a multiplication problem, they should be able to say the multiplication table of that number automatically. The child should not have to think about it. The response should be automatic. We need to understand that automaticity of basics allows us to focus on more complex skills. 

The road to that will start with an understanding of the ‘why’ and ‘how.’ But after that, it should involve repetitive drills and memorisation of the basics. Children in primary grades should have intensive practice so that they know the age-appropriate vocabulary corpus, math facts and multiplication tables.

If we are to successfully teach students, we must help them develop automaticity in these basic skills. This will give them the confidence to steer their learning at high speeds and even manoeuvre through tougher territories. Else, they will always be anxiously looking over their shoulder and never get off to a speedy start. We owe this confidence to our students.

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