Math, Teaching and Instruction

The Mad Minute- A Tragic Tale of Defeat and Remorse

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away there lived a girl named Jennifer. Jennifer was a student and on this particular day she was sitting in her desk carefully writing her name on the back of a piece of white paper. When her teacher said GO and not a second before (it was strictly forbidden to peek) she turned over her paper to reveal a page full of math basic facts. As quickly as possible, she began computing math facts and writing the answers on the paper. The whole class was silent, the only exception was the quite sounds of pencils frantically scratching and the odd moan. The gauntlet had been thrown down and the race was on to conquer the sheet and then celebrate your triumph in front of your friends. After two minutes the class was told to stop..turn the page over and put their pencils down. Some students smiled with victory as the teacher walked between the rows collecting the sheets. Some students hung their heads defeated, deflated and quite frankly exhausted from the effort. Jennifer lived in both groups some days she felt the sweet sensation of victory, some days the sheer agony of defeat. On this day the sheet, only half completed had declared it’s victory over her. The teacher would return the worksheet the next day with X’s and checks marks on it, along with the final score out of 50. Students who did well were told to keep up the good work. Those who didn’t were told to try harder next week when Mad Minute day came. On this particular day Jennifer asked her teacher if they had to have Mad Minutes day every week. She was given this short, simple answer…”It will help you learn your basic facts”.

Years later Jennifer was a teacher, with her own group of students sitting before her eagerly awaiting their signal to turn over the sheet of paper and begin. She had been given the most wonderful opportunity to teach students their basic math facts and was using the one tool she knew would ensure that students learned… The Mad Minute. After all, she had successfully learned her basic facts and had long since abandoned using her fingers and toes…well most of the time anyways. Some of her students experienced success, some struggled, some downright refused to start. Jennifer reflected on this fact with a colleague the next day. Why didn’t the kids get it?…she was doing all she could…she had even increased her Mad Minute time to twice a week…yet they refused to learn. Her colleague suggested sending the worksheets home for more practice. Maybe parents would have the time to help the students continue to learn those basic facts. After all they had now completed the unit on operations.

As I reflect on this story I feel sad, for that young girl who felt defeated, that young teacher who knew very little about teaching mathematics, and for all of those students. I was that girl and knew how defeated the Mad Minute made me feel…yet I created that same experience for my students. I simply knew no other way. A few years later I heard a speaker say something that really struck home to me… “When teachers align what they teach… with what students learn…and with what they assess… they honour the learners in their classrooms.

Mad Minutes, at least the way they had been modelled for me, were considered the one stop shop for teaching students to learn and assessing progress in basic facts. Knowing what I know now I understand that they are none of those things. They didn’t teach…they evaluated, they didn’t support learning…they evaluated, at best you could say they assessed and provided feedback for teacher planning and instructional decision-making (which they didn’t). At worst…they evaluated. They became an activity for survival of the fittest. The strong survived to basked in their success. The weak were defeated, crushed and left to feel like math failures. No one was honored. If you were one of those bright-eyed, trusting students in my classroom…I sincerely apologize. You deserved a teacher who would teach so that you could learn. A teacher who would assess and use those assessments for learning. A teacher who would not send home the very object of your frustration only to have you experience failure in a new environment. You deserved better! Knowing what I know now…I COULD do better. I now believe that:

  • Teaching mathematics is about developing student competence AND confidence
  • Teaching of basic facts should be done in a way that is strategic, and in attainable steps that can inspire confidence
  • Practice should be purposeful and targeted
  • Fluency is important and students should be given opportunities to develop fluency that is built on a foundation of conceptual knowledge
  • Monitoring of Progress is key and should inform instructional decisions
  • Assessments can be timed if necessary but students should be allowed to finish and only “compete” with themselves
  • Students should be given opportunities to see patterns within operations and connections between addition/subtraction and multiplication/division
  • Numbers are flexible and teaching/ learning about them should be as well

My next few posts will continue to develop my thinking on purposeful practice and procedural fluency in a way that I hope honors our learners and inspires success. As always your comments and feedback are always welcome.

8 thoughts on “The Mad Minute- A Tragic Tale of Defeat and Remorse”

  1. Thanks for this. I agree with the generalisations you have made about teaching and learning, but would go further to say that it goes beyond one teaching style (that either works or doesn’t work) to the teacher themselves. Too often do we make teachers with low subject knowledge and experience stand in front of students they don’t really know how to teach. With nothing to actually teach, they are forced to defend themselves with assessment after assessment and just hope their students learn something. I’ve written recently about this at

  2. Great story! I thought that Jennifer was about to pull out a web-device and start calculating the answers in the spirit of Conrad Wolfram, but sadly, no. It’s all the more tragic with the too often heard “they refused to learn”!

  3. Great post! I remember we had something in my math class like that to help with our multiplication. I really enjoyed it and it helped me learn but my problem was rather than learn, I memorized. I do that with everything and have always struggled with math. I really enjoyed your story.

  4. I am Allison Cullars from EDM 310. This is a great post I really enjoyed reading it. I agree with the statements about teaching and learning. These steps are good to follow and abide by while in a classroom. Teachers need to know the subject matter before they teach. Just giving assessments to students is not going to help them learn. People learn in different ways, so we need to assess the characteristics and learning abilities of the studies. I had an assessment just like this in one of my classes and it scared me every time. This post is a motivation for teachers to improve in their knowledge. It inspires success in teachers and learners.

  5. My name is Kristen Cobbs and I am in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. Math has always been my number one enemy at school. We had timed assessments like the one mentioned in your story and I was always one of the defeated students. I agree with your approach to teaching mathematics. Math seems to be the most hated subject in school. However, if teachers used your approach I believe that will no longer be the case. When I become a teacher, I plan to implement your approach and make sure I will do my best to build the students’ confidence.

  6. Hi, my name is Candace Buzbee and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed reading this post. Math was usually easy to me, but there were times that I was defeated by math. I completely agree with your approach to teaching your students. I will defiantly be using your approach to teaching on one of the hardest subjects math. Thanks for the advice on how to be a good teacher!


  7. Help! This post is soooo important. My daughter, in 5th grade, is now living the Mad Minute weekly torture. It is destroying her Math confidence and makes her feel crappy in general each week. Does anyone know of existing research to speak to the how ineffective this teaching method is? I am going to speak to my daughter’s teacher on Friday.

    1. I would begin by letting the teacher know how your daughter is feeling. The teacher might not be aware of your daughter’s feelings. Possibly you could suggest that instead of having a set time and a frenzied rush through the facts your daughter could record how much time it takes her to get through and then work to beat that time next time. I would also ask about what instructional strategies and interventions are occurring between each mad minute assessment to help your daughter improve. Good luck.

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