All learning boundaries are conventions

*We pulled this lovely article from the blog archives of The Precision Teaching Book website. Rick wrote this blog way back in February 2014. 

People we care for can struggle when learning. Sometimes those challenges rise to a level  signaling deep concern. A student who cannot read, for instance, will have very limited career avenues not to mention limited participation in much of what our technological society has to offer. What can we do?

For starters, potential solutions will result from how a teacher views learning. Unfortunately, all too often the learner is blamed for the failure. Convenient labels communicate the problem resides within the student themselves and the teacher must fix the learner. As an example, auditory processing disorder states a person cannot process information auditorily like other people do. The disorder means the person has difficulty with sounds that compose speech. Fixing the underlying speech processing mechanism then would lead to improved academic performance. The following example illustrates the line of reasoning applied to a math problem.

Problem: Student struggles to learn adding fractions    ½ + ⅔ =

Diagnosis of problem: Student has auditory processing disorder and cannot understand the instructions provided by the teacher or student cannot engage in “mental math” because he or she has trouble hearing his or her own voice.

Solution: Fix the underlying problem (auditory processing disorder) or provide accommodations so the student can overcome problem.

Teachers who embrace the previously mentioned problem with an indirect cause will likely focus much energy and effort at marginally useful exercises. For example, a solution may involve “Right Brain Math Strategies,” presenting information at a slow pace, giving the student one problem at a time, or strengthening note-taking skills.

Students with auditory processing disorders (or any other underlying problem like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) have a clearly defined learning boundary; they cannot escape who they are.

Precision Teaching

How does Precision Teaching differ from methods that establish the problem as a characteristic of the learner? The answer lies in the structure of the PT system: Pinpoint – Record – Change – Try Again.

Step 1 = Pinpoint

Pinpointing means selecting the most precise, representative label of behavior. Pinpointing follows a specific method:

1. Select an action verb.

2. Select object used with action verb (keep it singular).

3. Add “s” to the end of action verb (Present tense).

4. Check the pinpoint for observability and cyclicality (repeatability).

5. Add context important to the pinpoint.

Let’s take the previous problem: Student struggles to learn adding fractions    ½ + ⅔ =

According to the pinpointing steps above we have the following:

1. Write (action verb for this particular behavior involves writing, though it could also involve keyboarding, saying, or selecting, all different behaviors).

2. Fraction answer

3. Writes

4. “Writes fraction answer” passes the test for observability and cyclicality – anyone can clearly observe it and the student can repeat the behavior.

5. Writes fraction answer on practice sheet (the added context further clarifies the exact nature of the pinpoint).

With the pinpoint “Writes fraction answer on practice sheet,” the focus of the problem centers solely on behavior, not a processing problem or some other indirect cause. Of course, pinpointing behavior does not mean the teacher ignores issues that may affect the behavior. For instance, if a student has poor handwriting, the handwriting would factor into how well the student can write and perform the pinpoint “Writes fraction answer on practice sheet.”

Step 2 = Record

The second step means the teacher records the student’s pinpoint “Writes fraction answer on practice sheet” with frequency. Frequency refers to a count in a time interval. In the practice sheet below, we can count the number of correct and incorrect written fraction answers on the practice sheet. The student wrote a total of 4 correct digits and 9 incorrect digits. An inspection of the performance shows a clear strategy the student has used: just adding the digits from left to right. By using the straight adding strategy the student wrote some correct digits. However, the correct digits appeared in the correct place not because the student applied the necessary strategy to understand and complete the addition algorithm properly.

adding fractions

If the student completed the performance in 1 minute, we now have a frequency: 4 correct and 9 incorrect digits per minute. Recording the frequency of the pinpoint each day brings us to the third step in Precision Teaching, Change.

Step 3 = Change

The student will perform the pinpoint each day. The teacher will record the correct and incorrect frequency. Then the student or teacher (best when done by the student) will chart data on a Standard Celeration Chart (SCC).

The SCC below displays the first frequency we recorded (discussed above in step 2) and 4 more frequencies taken each day of the week. When examining the trends for corrects and incorrects a troubling picture arises; corrects remain below incorrects and have not grown or shown signs of accelerating. Also, incorrects accelerated which reflects the student, Ivan, trying harder but not applying a strategy that leads to more correct answers.

SCC for blogpost

The SCC paints a vivid picture for the teacher who will decide whether to institute a change or continue on the present course of behavior. Clearly the teacher will make a change due to poor and deteriorating performance. Additionally, PT involves the student. When students self chart, ownership of the pinpoint rises. Students can then self monitor and contribute to decision making.

Step 4 = Try Again

Try Again refers to a Precision Teacher’s marching orders – keep trying interventions until we solve the problem. A number of different intervention tactics have emerged from the 1,000s of teachers and students who have used PT through the years. One example of a tactic, “Try-3-at-once.” A teacher gives the student three different tasks, like writing multiplication fact answers on a practice sheet, saying multiplication fact answers to flashcards, or keyboarding multiplication fact answers on a computer screen. After giving the students daily, timed assessments for a week, the task in which the student learned best in (as shown by the steepest trend or celeration line on a SCC) would become the preferred method of instruction.

Many other Try Again, problem solving tactics exist to help the student, all directly governed by the students observable behavior.

Let’s recap. The Precision Teaching process focuses directly on behavior. A pinpointed behavior, precisely measured as a frequency, and then charted and displayed on a specially designed visual graphic that unambiguously depicts the course of behavior. Reexamining the problem and solutions in a Precision Teaching perspective looks like the following:

Problem: Student struggles to learn adding fractions    ½ + ⅔ =

Diagnosis of problem: Student does not know the proper algorithm for adding fractions.

Solution: Fix the problem by teaching and then having the student practice the algorithm for adding fractions. The teacher closely monitors the student’s daily performance and knows immediately how well the student has learned the algorithm.

If you root for the underdog, believe applied science can solve the most inveterate problems, and hold the conviction that we should never give up on the learner, then you share the core beliefs of a Precision Teacher.


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