Sutton, Mass. — The music starts; there is a beep and immediately the talking, poking, and third grade wiggling stops. Immediately. Tongues curl over upper lips in concentration and hands holding grease pencils and felt-tip pens move furiously, racing to get down the answers to multiplication problems or to make as many uppercase R's as possible before the beep sounds again.
That second beep sends those hands scurrying for answer sheets, charts, and small sponges to clean the plastic that saves the work sheets for another day.
There is no teacher threatening these children with a big stick. No one has to. This is "Precision Teaching" and, according to students here in Sutton, it's fun.
According to their teachers, it may be fun, but it is also an effective tool in teaching those students their basics.
Every day an estimated 68,000 students in this country, Canada, and Great Britain practice specific arithmetic, spelling, reading, and handwriting skills trying to "overlearn" them, to learn them so well they can use them without thinking, according to Beverly Brown, the director of special education in Sutton and a certified tainer of Precision Teaching (PT) techniques.
"When we introduce it to the kids, we tell them to think about when they learned to ride a bike," she said. "At first they had to think about each move. Then they practiced and now they just get on and go."
PT doesn't actually teach anybody anything, Ms. Brown said. Teachers still teach. PT just helps them to their job.
It can be used to teach just about any skill. The technique was first developed in the late 1950s by psychologists working with problem adults. Today it is being used with both children and adults, both handicapped and normal, to teach everything from not kicking classmates to conjugating French verbs.
One reason it works is that all basic skills are broken down in components, Ms. Brown said. One work sheet asks the student to trace X's; another to identify acute, right, and obtuse angles; another to count change; another to identify the parts of a sewing machine.
PT gives the teacher and the student immediately feedback. Students correct their own work and see the right answers immediately.
Students chart their own progress. Rather than competing with other students , they can take pride in their own achievements, Ms. Brown said.
If a student's chart indicates after three days on one skill that no progress is being made, both teacher and student know the student needs more teaching, she said.
"So many times as teachers we correct things and give it back to kids. They say 'Ah, 75' and toss it," she said.
As students become more involved, they become more responsible for their own learning, Ms. Brown said.
"They hook into it I think because they can see progress," she said. "It feels good to get better."
The advantage of the program for teachers is that they know quickly if they are getting through to each student. And they can prepare the work sheets easily themselves.
Most of the work sheets come from a dissemination center at the Sacajawea Elementary School in Great Falls, Mont., where a model program was started in 1972. There are 9,000 work sheets on file, most developed by teachers, and they cost 5 cents each with no copy right attached.