Tag Archives: steps

So Easy?!

Problems like the addition problem below are often viewed by adults as straight forward. This perception can make it difficult for adults, including teachers and even special education teachers to help students who struggle with it.

I find that the math teacher candidates and special education teacher candidates struggle with breaking down math topics, especially “easy” ones like the one below, into simple steps. To help students who struggle with math breaking down the math topic is imperative. The analogy I use is to break the topic down into bite-sized pieces like we cut up a hot dog for a baby in a high chair.

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For new teachers I use a formal task analysis approach to teach candidates how to cut up the math into bite-sized pieces. A task analysis for the problem above was an assignment given to a group of graduate level special ed candidates. As is common, they overlooked many simple little steps hidden in the problem. These steps are hidden because they are so simple or so automatic in our brains that we don’t think about them. See below for how I break this topic into several pieces or steps. For example, before even starting the addition the person doing the problem has to identify that 43 is a 2-digit number with 4 in the TENS place and 3 in the ONES place. Understanding that the problem is addition which entails pulling the numbers together to get a total (sum) is an essential and overlooked step. If a student struggles with a step the step can be addressed in isolation, as I show in another blog post.

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Shaping Behavior

Shaping is a term in special ed which basically means to train a student to incrementally follow through on a sequence of substeps to accomplish a task. B.F. Skinner coined a different name for this which he called operant conditioning. The top photo below shows “Skinner’s box.” The pigeon was placed in the box and when it pecked at the metal wall a pellet of food was presented to it. Eventually the reward was given as the pigeon pecked closer and closer to the disk in the wall where its beak is in the photo. Finally, it learned that by pecking this disk was the only means of getting the pellet.

In special education, this shaping is used to train a student to achieve specific outcomes. In the bottom photo below my son Gabriel is playing with his favorite all time toy, Legos. As is the case with many with autism, he would not look at people in the eye. His therapists trained him to make eye contact by first holding his Legos in the air until he requested them. Eventually the Legos were held incrementally closer to the therapist’s eyes. The second to last step was to hold them next to the eyes and finally he had to look into the therapist’s eyes before getting the Legos.

This same approach can be used to train students to attempt problems, think critically, follow classroom norms such as the appropriate steps for starting classs and any other desired behavior.

skinner box

lucas and Legos

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Task Analysis

ice cream cone task analysis

task analysis two step equation

A teacher friend of mine in the ASD community shared an anecdote for me to share. Her son had trouble figuring out perimeter. He was counting the squares and didn’t want to count the corner squares twice. The solution? The squares were pieces of sod to fill in the inside while the outer sides of the squares were fence pieces. This shows how kids can get caught up on the smallest details that teachers overlook.

This can be addressed using task analysis which is a process of breaking a skill into small steps. This is common in special education but not as much in math. While math teachers can be effective in the process, there are often little steps that are overlooked or not addressed as much as necessary. Effective task analysis also allows for more effective scaffolding.

The photos above are examples of task analysis. The top photo taken at Burger King shows a sequence of photos showing how to pour a soft cream ice cream. The bottom is a task analysis break down of all the steps in solving a linear equation – ALOT of steps!

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