EP 126: Fidget Spinners: Learning Tools or Distractions?

If you have a child of any age, you no doubt have seen, touched, or experienced a “Fidget Spinner.” A fidget spinner is nothing more than a handheld wheel with a central axis point. They are sold in a multitude of shapes and designs, but the core commonality that binds them is their ability to be held and spun indefinitely. Lubrication between the joints enables them to go particularly fast, in some cases spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute. These quirky yet simple devices have actually been around since the 1990s, but have only recently exploded in popularity. Even I have had the opportunity to play with them, and I must say, they are oddly captivating.

But I don’t think it’s the look or feel of these devices that have catapulted them across headline news. The reason why these products seem to be so interesting and controversial is because of their categorization as a tool to ease the symptoms of attention related ailments that make it difficult for young students to focus in class. Makers of the spinning gadgets purport that these devices are "perfect for ADD, ADHD, anxiety and autism."

When students have trouble focusing in class, a potential solution is to offer them something that they can touch during class so that they feel a sense of calm. This in turn enables them to silence the parts of their brain that could lead them astray, thereby allowing them to pay attention and absorb information more efficiently.

In theory, fidget spinners sound like an excellent fit for such a solution. They feel nice when they are spinning, are very simple to operate, and reasonably priced. The problem, however, lies in how they are actually used. Fidget spinners are extremely fun to play with, and that’s why I believe that they are dangerous in classrooms. I have seen many of my students use them, both in class and during tutoring sessions, and what I notice is that the devices are mesmerizing. Students aren’t able to simply touch them while paying attention to a lecture; instead, they want to watch them, move them around, and balance them on their fingers and noses. In short, fidget spinners end up becoming a larger distraction than help. "The spinner toys, in my opinion, and that of teachers I've spoken to, are just that – toys," according to occupational therapist Stephen Poss. "Spinner toys are visually distracting, and I think that's their major drawback."

So where do I stand on the controversy surrounding these products? As long as my students are responsible with them, they are allowed to have them at school, but I definitely do not consider them to be helpful with respect to staying focused. I ask that they are put away during class so that students are not distracted. If you are being told that fidget spinners will actually improve your child’s attention or focus, I believe that you are being misled.

Here are links to the articles referenced in the podcast:





EP 125: The Correlation Between Music and Math

I can say this with almost 100% certainty (perhaps 99.9%): if you are a person living on this planet, you enjoy listening to music. You may prefer the dark melodies and heavy guitar riffs of punk rock, or you might gravitate towards the light and upbeat sounds of electro pop. Whatever particular concoction of rhythms and sounds you prefer, rest assured that there is something that tickles your fancy.

There is something else you should know. While most folks readily profess a stalwart love for music, they simultaneously describe a deep hatred for mathematics. When thinking about classroom mathematics and modern music, it is natural to initially presume that the two are diametrically opposed, but this line of thinking is incorrect. The two are in fact inextricably connected (to hear more about the connection between math and music, check out my video on the applications of math). Music is simply an auditory extension of mathematics. Making good music mandates that composers adhere to numerical laws of rhythm, timing, and melody. Scales are literally mathematical rules applied to vibrational frequencies that seem be universal across the planet. Many famous composers like Iannis Xenakis openly use mathematical theories to create musical works of art.

But there is another connection to take notice of that is highly relevant to our young math students today. According to an article from Brain Balance, “using specific music and sounds may help to stimulate one hemisphere more than the other and possibly create more balance in the brain. As such, listening to music could improve a student’s cognition and ability to learn math skills. As recently as 2012, one study showed that listening to music during a math test could improve performance by 40 percent.” Translation: music can help you learn math! Moreover, the article purports that upbeat music and major tones in particular can bolster left hemisphere activities, which is directly relevant to logic based tasks like science and math reasoning.
I have known about the harmonious relationship between mathematics and music for some time now. Recognizing the interplay between the two was the impetus for me to begin the creation of a series of math music videos. I try to bridge the gap between music and math by literally singing about math related concepts. Moreover, I use the choruses as a sort of musical mnemonic device to give students the best opportunity possible to memorize tricky formulas and perform well on tests. To check out my latest math music video on special right triangles, click here.

EP 124: 6 Reasons Why You Should Study for a Math Placement Test

To date, I have worked as a private math tutor, test preparation specialist, 6th grade math teacher, and online video course creator. Part of my duties in these various positions have led me to counsel students who are transitioning to new middle schools, high schools, and colleges. The question that I have received over and over from students and parents is this: should one prepare for a math placement test? It is an interesting question since most folks naturally assume that everyone should study before an exam. So why the confusion? Because most schools tell new students not to prepare for placement tests. The rationale is that placement tests are merely meant to gauge current math skills, and preparation for these tests might muddy the waters. Moreover, there is no passing or failing; these tests will simply be used to determine what level of math a student will enter when school begins. For example, a new 7th grader may either enter pre-algebra, algebra, or geometry based on their placement test results. So, as it stands, most teachers and counselors seem to be advising students to go into these tests without preparation. Do I agree? Of course not, and I will explain why in six simple reasons.

Caveat: I only recommend preparing for placement tests when the desire to do so comes intrinsically from the student. Forcing the issue means the student is not mentally or emotionally prepared to work hard, and that can be a problem if placed into a high math group. If, however, the student is pushing for the preparation, there is no need to fear. Their desire to perform well will carry them. I am in support of introducing the idea to a student, but if they do not latch onto the concept, then my recommendation is to let them be.

Reason 1: It’s easy to forget nuances and lose points even when math fluency and comprehension are strong

Who out there remembers the quadratic formula in its entirety? Who recalls precisely how to take the derivative of sin(x)? Who can still solve a system of linear equations? As an adult who is far removed from the study of mathematics, my guess is that you have completely forgotten all of these protocols and procedures. But guess what… even if you’ve only had a month or two away from these concepts, chances are that you’ve forgotten parts of these processes. Perhaps you remember the bulk of the quadratic formula, but you somehow thought the denominator was 2 instead of 2a. Or maybe you confused the derivative of sin(x) with the derivative of cos(x).

My point is this: it is very easy to forget a small component of these formulas and procedures, even when your comprehension at one time was flawless. Is it then fair or accurate for a multiple choice math placement test to penalize a student for a series of minor mishaps? Absolutely not. Aside from being fair, it is inaccurate. Accordingly, brushing up on these concepts is a must. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating a full on multi-week cram session where you embark upon a quest to learn massive amounts of new information. What I do recommend, however, is a thorough review of all the concepts you learned in the previous year. It will not misrepresent your abilities; to the contrary, it will let your true math prowess shine.

Reason 2: Math knowledge can be substantially ramped up in a relatively short period of time

Math is not like reading. Becoming a solid reader takes years of practice and devotion because it is such a highly complex process. While math can be highly complex as well, middle school and high school mathematics is comprised of a series of relatively simple operations. When I say simple, I do not mean math is easy. What I mean is that much of the individual math concepts taught at these levels can be understood and mastered in a relatively short period of time. It’s the reason why students preparing for standardized tests routinely see a much larger jump in math scores than verbal scores after preparing for a few months. As such, engaging in some focused practice and review in a short period of time can have a significant impact on one’s ability on a math placement test. Translation: the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.

Reason 3: It is very unlikely that you can perform beyond your abilities on a placement test (i.e. if you can get it right on the placement test, you most likely GET IT)

So many math education websites state that you should not prepare for placement tests because you want to be in an appropriate math class for your knowledge and ability level. Well, since final exams are meant to gauge a student’s understanding of class material, should students forego preparation for final exams as well? What about standardized tests? Don’t we want students to be placed at a university that is appropriate for their skill level? The point is that preparation is part and parcel of the education process, and how hard a student is willing to prepare is also indicative of their ability to succeed through perseverance. Moreover, if a student understands a concept to the point where they can provide a correct answer on a placement test, they GET IT. I do, however, concede that students should refrain from guessing on placement tests. That would be counterproductive. Educated guesses make sense, but blind guesses would serve no purpose in assessing placement.

Reason 4: You can always move backwards, but you usually can’t move forward

Let’s play out the worst case scenario of acing a math placement test. Assume that a student going into 7th grade crushes the assessment and is moved into geometry, a very advanced math class for 7th grade. Let’s also assume that the student is now experiencing great trepidation about geometry and feels as though algebra would be a better fit. The parents concur. Is it feasible to move the child from geometry backwards to algebra? Of course! Schools are extremely amenable to moving a student backwards if both the parents and student feel that such placement is appropriate. Going the other way, however, is extremely difficult, especially with prestigious college preparatory institutions. Schools in the upper echelon of academia can be rigid with respect to placement results. I’ve seen many students fall victim to these systems only to end up facing boredom all year long. In sum, shoot for the stars so that you have options.

Reason 5: If you have a tutor, you will be more than equipped to iron out any difficulties that may arise in a challenging math class

For students lucky enough to have access to outside help, there is nothing to fear. Whether it’s a private tutor, parent, or teacher who volunteers after school, having access to extra help should alleviate any stress about being placed in an advanced math class. Any concepts that are troubling can be cleared up in a very short period of time when personalized help is available.

Reason 6: It is better to busy than be bored

Counselors constantly warn students of the dangers of being placed in a higher than appropriate math class. They admonish parents and students alike of how high level math classes can leave unprepared students feeling overwhelmed or anxious. But what about the alternative? What about the dangers of being bored? Boredom can destroy a child’s love for mathematics. Stagnation is a recipe for indifference. Moreover, the likelihood that a child will be completely overwhelmed with no ability to catch up is very small if the child possesses intrinsic motivation. Again, this entire article is premised on the fact that a child is preparing for a placement test because of his own desire. If a student indeed wants to prepare, they will likely embrace whatever challenge may come their way. So, it is with no hesitation or second thought that I leave you with this final recommendation: if a student wishes to prepare for a math placement test, by all means, let him do so.