Math and I have a complicated relationship.
I like math.
But I don’t like how it’s usually taught.
Growing up, I was naturally good at math. When I did math, I felt powerful. I took all the advanced math classes in high school: geometry, Algebra III, trigonometry, and AP Calculus. I even took Calculus I and II in college to fulfill my graduation requirements.
You’d think since I had a “positive” experience with math in school, I’d be eager to replicate that in our home.
My heart and my children’s needs steered me in a 180° angle (smile).
When I began to evaluate my experiences in school, I realized that my primary skill that led to my success in math was not understanding. It was my ability to memorize. As a young student, I learned to use that skill to people-please my way into the teacher’s pet-dom, to form an identity for myself, to mask my growing feelings of insecurity.
(See?! I told you it was complicated!)
And as the years passed, I had that familiar sense so many of us identify with when it comes to this subject of math: Boredom.
Irksome questions rang through my head: What’s the point of all this and When am I ever going to use it?
I want something different for my kids.
God’s world is built on patterns, numbers, and shapes, so I see the value of studying these concepts. Therefore they must be interesting, useful, and worth learning about!
Yet I dare to believe in a different timeline for math. Because when I look at the scope and sequence for elementary school kids, one thing appears drastically lacking:
The principle of relevancy.
My children naturally want to learn and conquer the things that are relevant to their lives.
I saw this in them when it came to a love of and interest in the visual and performing arts. In our home my children were surrounded by music and picturesque books–therefore they showed interest in both quite early (still on their own unique timeline, mind you.)
With math, the process has felt different.
Some parts are definitely relevant–the ones that appear in our daily lives.
This includes writing numbers, counting, basic adding and subtracting, temperature, fractions as related to cooking, telling time, measuring, the concepts of multiplication and division (but not complicated calculations with them), decimals as related to money, and probably more I’m forgetting.
But math that doesn’t naturally arise in our daily lives does not get our focus right now because it requires a different process: Abstract thought.
The ability to reason and think abstractly doesn’t come in the early elementary years–it develops closer to the age of puberty.
In the Successful Homeschool Family Handbook, Dr. Raymond Moore states that “Piagetian experiments have shown repeatedly that cognitive maturity may not come until close to age 12. Interestingly, the ancient Orthodox Jews, known over the world for their brilliance, provided little or no formal schooling until after age twelve for girls and thirteen for boys when children were considered able to accept full responsibility for their actions.”
Many of you may agree that the traditional approach to math study, whether done at school or at home, tends to create a hatred for math in many kids. It makes plenty feel stupid at a young age–an internal lesson awfully hard to unlearn later. Others (like I did) begin to measure themselves by their positive performance instead of their inner value.
All of the above is the opposite of what I want for my own growing children. Instead of making our sons fit the system, I’m creating a new system to fit our sons.
Don’t think for a minute that this has been entirely easy to do. In some ways, it actually has. By allowing the principle of relevancy to guide our math learning, I’ve lightened my load considerably.
But as you would guess, dear mothers, the difficult part has been my own mental conflicts when it comes to choosing something so counter-cultural–and sticking with that decision in the face of opposition. When I start to panic (and you should know I do sometimes), those mental mêlées are usually the reason why.
We’ve had to step way outside the grade level box to follow our family’s personal convictions in this area, and that has taken courage. But knowing we’re doing what’s right for our children has made the choice beyond worth it.
So if you’ve hit a wall in your study of numbers, if you or your students have or are experiencing math burnout, or if you’ve ever wondered “Is this the only way?” –then know that you’re not alone.
If you’re shouting ‘Amen’, let’s venture together and make math make sense. Instead of continuing to drill facts and rely on rote memorization, let’s be more progressive and start to help our children create their own understanding of conceptual, relevant math.