An Interview with Bob Sun, CEO of Suntex –Makers of First in Math!

Nov 7, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Bob, I just got a packet of materials about the Common Core Standard in Math. What should I read about first or should I just read it and weep?

No.  Just read the two page introduction that clearly states why and how Common Core Standards were developed, then peruse the rest of the document for particular items of interest. CCSSM is focusing more narrowly on what should be taught in each grade – but more in depth. The standards are keyed into international benchmarks so once skills are mastered, they are applicable across states and nations.

2)      Do you really think there will be a gap in education created by the Common Core Standards or will it just be “more of the same “?

I think the Common Core is well organized and thought out.  It raised the bar for many states, but setting higher expectations alone will not achieve substantial results. Our experience in working with children for more than two decades is that teaching is only one half of the equation in getting students good at math. The other half requires getting students engaged, taking ownership and spending lots of hours practicing math.

3)      What do you mean by deep practice? Worksheets?

Deep practice can start once a child makes a conscious decision to master a skill. A complex skill is presented in progressive, manageable chunks. Each chunk is practiced while receiving immediate feedback, stopping when an error occurs, practicing that skill until it is perfected, then continuing. Deep practice causes neurological changes in the brain. It builds a living tissue (called myelin) around the nerve fibers that connect the brain’s neurons. The myelin acts like an insulation and once the nerve fibers are myelinated, the signal strength of the electrical impulses between neurons increases 20 times and the speed increases 100 times. By undergoing deep practice, kids are building the equivalent of a “broadband network” in their brains. Worksheets can rarely be an effective tool for deep practice because they can’t fulfill the requirement of immediate feedback.  Technology is uniquely suited for that task.

4)      I have to tell you, I did not even buy a Texas Instruments Calculator- 55 until I was doing doctoral work. I never owned a calculator before Advanced Statistics. Yet, I made it through algebra, geometry and trig. Am I the odd person out? Or do students nowadays HAVE to have MATH BLASTER and all this other stuff?

No, you are not the odd one out. There are millions (myself included) like you. We worked and spent the time to myelinate our brains and built a solid foundation in math skills. For us, calculators were tools that saved us time to crunch and double-check what we already knew how to do with our brains.

Unfortunately, many kids today think “why learn the times table when I have a calculator to do the work?” But without building automaticity in basic facts, they have missed putting in place the crucial scaffolding in their brains that will enable them to tackle higher order thinking and more rigorous math skills.

5)      What do you think are the necessary tools for math? A protractor? Ruler? Compass?

The first essential element is an immediate feedback mechanism. In the past, we had to rely on another live body to supply us that feedback. But live bodies are very expensive. With the advent of technology, we can now have immediate feedback in a very cost effective manner. Once children receive immediate feedback, they are eager to practice – as they are in sports and music where our physical senses serve as a built-in immediate feedback mechanism (unfortunately our physical senses are useless in the mental realm of doing math).

Ultimately, a myelinated brain is the best tool. When a child is engaged in a focused form of practice we call “Deep Practice” a living tissue, myelin, insulates the neural circuits created by deep practice, making the signal faster, stronger and longer lasting. The result is quicker thinking and better retention.

6)      I think you and I would agree that math skills tend to deteriorate over the summer. How can teachers do formative evaluation AND remediate for kids who already dislike math ?

Most core curricula built in a system for review at the beginning of the school year. Our company’s program, First In Math (FIM), was designed so students can find their comfort level and build skills from there.

7)      I have found there are good students, but they have low frustration tolerance- math take time—What would you suggest?

Math activities do not have to be laborious. First In Math content, ranging from simple one-step addition to multi-step algebra is game-based. Students have a great time on the First In Math website while they practice and master math skills. Because they receive immediate feedback with FIM, learning becomes meaningful. Since FIM offers hundreds of entry points, children can always find a game that match their unique skill level and become engaged. As their skills improve, FIM will present increasing levels of challenge to keep them engaged.

8)      Now what exactly is Suntex and where can we learn more about this ?

Suntex International is a privately owned, for-profit company based in Pennsylvania. We are committed to helping children build a solid foundation in mathematics and in turn creating a new generation of thinkers. For the last 24 years, we have focused on products that get children excited about and proficient in mathematics. We are the creators of the 24® game series and the First In Math Online Program. To learn more visit www.firstinmath.com.

9)      I think we would agree that there seems to be more and more required of teachers, but the school day and year remain the same. When are we going to face that fact that we either need to lengthen the school day or year?

Many of our teachers are overwhelmed, because we have over emphasized teaching as the sole solution to math achievement. Our observation is that every five to eight years, there is a “new way” to teach kids math. Teachers undergo extensive professional development, expend lots of time and effort – only see little or no results. Add “high stakes testing” to this mixture and you have many unnecessary teacher burnout.

Having year-round schooling with spring, summer and winter breaks makes sense to me. It would offer more hours, eliminate summer slide and be more similar to the pace of life that they will face as adults.

10)  When you talk about “supplemental tools“, what are you talking about ?

Programs that are not core curriculum, but support it.

11)  What is your idea of positive reinforcement? Candy, stickers, smiley faces? Money?

The best positive reinforcement is knowing that you are succeeding and winning at a task that you have set out to accomplish. Intrinsic motivation is the most valuable driver.  No candy or sticker will ever be as satisfying as knowing you did your best and in so doing, accomplished something meaningful.

Sometimes extrinsic motivators may get the process off to a good start – however they will not serve as a sustainable motivator for excellence.

12)  What have I neglected to ask?

How can I get First In Math started in my school!

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