A different way to look at math


Written by Jamie Martin of Simple Homeschool and Steady Mom

Like many of us, I have a complicated relationship with math.

I like math.

But I don’t like how it’s usually taught.

I grew up naturally good at math in school. The subject made me feel powerful, and  eventually I was offered the chance to skip 7th grade math (which I ended up declining–those 8th graders looked too scary!).

You’d think since I had a “positive” experience with math in school, I’d be eager to replicate that in our home.

But my heart (and my children) steered me in a different direction.

I see now that the main skill that led to my math success wasn’t understanding math; it was the ability to memorize. From an early age I used that skill to people-please my way into my teachers’ hearts, to form an identity for myself, and to cover up 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: Boredom.

Those nagging 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.

I see the value of studying numbers, patterns, and shapes–because God built those into our world. Therefore they must be interesting, useful, and worth learning about!

Yet I’m daring to believe in a different timeline for this subject. Because when I look at the math scope and sequence for elementary school kids, one thing appears drastically lacking:

The principle of relevancy.

A different way to look at math

Children naturally want to learn and conquer the things that are relevant to their lives.

I saw this with my own as littles when it came to a love of and interest in words. In our home my children were surrounded by reading and writing–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.

“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.”
~ Dr. Raymond Moore, The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook, pg. 44

The traditional approach to math study, whether done at school or at home, creates a hate of 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 my kids fit the system, I’m creating a new system to fit my kids.

A different way to look at math2

I will not for a second suggest that this has been entirely easy to do. In some ways, it actually has. I’ve lightened my load considerably by allowing the principle of relevancy to guide our math learning.

The hard part has been my own mental battles 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 battles 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.

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to bring a little thought-provoking inspiration across your path in this series on looking at math differently. Stay tuned.

** Update: This series is now finished! Read the second post, third post, and final post – enjoy!

“The tantalizing and compelling pursuit of mathematical problems offers mental absorption, peace of mind amid endless challenges, repose in activity, battle without conflict, “refuge from the goading urgency of contingent happenings,” and the sort of beauty changeless mountains present to sense tried by the present-day kaleidoscope of events.”
~Morris Kline, Mathematics in Western Culture

Are you and your children happy with the way you’ve chosen to learn math in your homeschool?

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. Absolutely, we are happy with our math! Life of Fred works perfectly for us, and I love how it blends real-world applications for the math it’s teaching with a silly story and a bunch of other random stuff too! We love Fred!

    I’ve got a BS and MS in aerospace engineering and have purchased the LOF Statistics and Calculus books as refreshers for myself!
    Melissa Jones’s latest post: MommyBee Designs

  2. I loved this! And so timely! I read this amazing article last night (sure you’ve probably seen it? – http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/15/01/whats-worth-learning-school) and your post is the first thing I’m reading this morning. They are both so very correct and really get to the heart of how we learn. Excellent reflections and thank you for sharing!!

  3. Looking foreward to the series. I’m in the same boat. I was naturally good at math (good at memorizing it too) and all my kids hate math. I never questioned the reLevant of it, I just did it. But, with my own kids, they hate not seeing the relevancy so it’s a real struggle. I’m so fed up with the whole public educational system because all subjects really are like that, and it feels like schools do not prepare our kids for real life. As a homeschooler, I love that we can prepare our own paths, but it is scary at the same time. I have 4 kids in a public homeschooling program so I have very little leeway now in the path if we want to keep on track. I just pulled two ofy kids out because I can see that it’s stripped their love of learning And we were just going through the motions of learning. So. again, I am looking forward to seeing your new approach as I am really trying to reiggnite the love of learning and have my kids really thrive in matH and the traditional approach us just not working.
    Sherrie’s latest post: Mean, Mode, Median & Range Notebooking Page

    • I hope it will give you some good food for thought, Sherrie. Whenever I have doubts, I always go back to my deep conviction that if my kids emerge from our home with their love of learning still intact, there’s nothing they can’t handle or overcome when they need to! But you’re right, it certainly feels scary at times.

  4. Thank you for these encouraging words, Jamie! Really looking forward to this series as math is definitely our most difficult subject at home.

  5. We use Math U See. I’ve no complaints. The way it is paced works well for my kids and it encourages applying math in everyday life. But math is not a favorite with my kids (never was mine either). I look forward to learning your approach. Thank you for sharing!

  6. I’m looking forward to this series, Jamie. We’ve tried many different math curricula over the last 10 year and this year we seem to have hit on a combination this year, for each kid, that works…..but the one that my high school aged daughter loves ends after the current book, so I don’t know what we’re going to do for trigonometry and calculus that make her feel as competent and successful with math as she does right now.
    Erin – The Usual Mayhem’s latest post: How to finger knit (with video)

  7. Very exciting! I look forward to reading about this approach and learning a new way of thinking about teaching math. Of all the subjects, this one is the most difficult for me to think about creatively.

    • I know what you mean, Sarah. On the surface it doesn’t seem like it can be handled creatively, but when you dig deeper you find so much creativity built into it–we just don’t usually see that side when using a traditional approach.

  8. Such a welcome, and timely topic, thank you!! You literally must have been reading my mind. I so value your insight and experience!

  9. So interested to see what works for your family. My two oldest graduated last year and we did several math series, none of which they really enjoyed — Abeka, Bob Jones (with and without DVD teachers), Saxon, and finally ending with Life of Fred Statistics (the only one they liked). They both did great on the ACT test. With my youngest, who is so easy to teach, I want to do something different. We are currently going through the Life of Fred series with him and he loves it!

  10. I have used Right Start Math with all my littles. My youngest though doesn’t like it at all. She is so totally different than my others and school has become drudgery. I love your posts and hope I have the courage to step away and just do what works for her. (I don’t know what that is.)

  11. Yay! I love thinking about how to explore math, mostly because in another universe (sans my public school math education) I might have been a math nerd. I’m on a quest to learn to appreciate math myself, and I really want that math appreciation for my kids, too. So I guess I’m trying to do this like I do with stories, which I have never had a problem loving. I get fun math books out of the library (playful, not instructive). I try to find activities and games that we can enjoy together. On that end, I recently discovered naturalmath.com and their book Moebius Noodles, which is all about exploring math concepts with kids. Looking forward to hearing Jamie share her experiences!

  12. Here’s a question for you. If you have a kid that enjoys math and excels in a program like Singapore that isn’t memorization based, but rather application/flexible thinking based, do you think that relevancy still matters? Generally I think relevancy is HUGE, but in this case I’ve been feeling that providing a mind workout is to her benefit, despite the lack of relevancy, since she doesn’t dislike the process. Thoughts? That said, perhaps our time could be spent better elsewhere. That’s always a valid consideration.
    Rachel at Stitched in Color’s latest post: Joiner

    • I guess first I would ask, Rachel, how old your daughter is? That would determine the answer I’d give you. If she’s eight or under, I’d say that it’s likely she’s just “playing” at math, which is fine as long as you don’t mind her giving it up when and if she loses interest. If she’s in the 9-12ish range, I’d focus on love of learning above all else. So if she loves it, then awesome! Then after a while she may find a new “love” to pursue and want to take a break for a while.

  13. I’m so looking forward to this! Math is one of (maybe the only) subject I’ve really struggled with as it pertains to homeschooling. Both my school age kids love to play with numbers and I want to foster that as much as I can. For now we don’t use a math curriculum and though it feels very right intuitively, I struggle with the occasional panic it causes me! Haha! I wonder where to go from here when none of the curriculums I’ve looked at seem to fit us– and I struggle because of my own past with math. Which was pretty much solidified when in 4th grade I was failing math but getting A’s everywhere else. I so desperately don’t want that experience for my children! So, yes, this is so timely! I’m excited to hear what you have to say.
    Darah’s latest post: this, the last of 2014

  14. Salena Tucker says:

    I have never liked math (as taught in the public schools in the 80’s), nor am I good at memorization. When I look at pages filled with numbers, my brain goes into a fog, kinda like feeling you get for the first few seconds when you wake up in a different place, and I feel like I’m looking at a foreign language. I see words and pictures in my head. As you can probably guess, this has caused much grief as I attempt to reconcile not only my own troubles with public school math, but also my conviction of two seemingly opposing ideas –
    1. That math as taught in public schools may be necessary.
    2. That math as taught in public schools may be easiest way to make children hate learning.

    So far we have tried a few things – Singapore Math (the kids think its okay, the pictures actually help me learn), Life of Fred (the kids love this, but I think its a little creepy), and Math Mammoth
    (didnt last long at all- not Ms. Miller’s fault but the lack of good pictures and/or a funny story is a deal breaker in this house). I am always torn between wanting them to pass the state test and wanting them to learn organically (your idea of relevancy are exactly right for us). I haven’t figured it out yet.

  15. So looking forward to hearing more. We are new to home schooling and math was a big part of the decision to pull this year. I haven’t discovered an approach yet to use but have latched onto what you are expressing here, relevancy. Hoping you share specifics of how you go about th is and materials you create or purchase to  this end.

  16. And to the commenter on the other side, I think you are right…
    Children with math inclination do not need the relevancy, necessarily..math is a passion or innate skill. For those that struggle with math, struggle with motivation to attend to math, etc, relevancy becomes not only important but needed.

  17. I appreciate these thoughts on math. I have a 12 year old with high functioning Autism, and 9 year old twins (all girls). Technically the 12 year old should be doing 6th grade work, but when I started home schooling her in fifth grade after some not so good experiences in public school, I realized just how little she retained. And my twins, well I pulled them out of school not long after the oldest because I saw their love of learning being burned out of them, especially in math. I personally have chosen to take math very slowly with all of them since then, in hopes of building not only a great foundation for them, but also building their confidence back up. I want them to see that they CAN do math if it’s taught in a way that they can absorb it and if they are given time to master those concepts. But I always worry about what everyone would think if they saw how slowly we are taking our math studies. I think about just how much the students in public school cover in 9 months and I worry I’m not doing a good enough job. During those times I try to remember why I decided to take things slow and try to stop comparing myself and our learning to everybody else. I always seem to come across a blog like this when I need it the most! Thanks for sharing!

    • “But I always worry about what everyone would think if they saw how slowly we are taking our math studies.”

      I know where you’re coming from, Heather! Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we just stopped caring what “everyone” thinks?!

    • Heather, I know exactly how you feel. When I pulled my son out of 3rd grade public school, we started math completely over. He was having trouble with subtraction. I too, worried at first, now not at all. He has actually progressed to the point, we started his 6th grade math after Christmas, and he is in 6th grade. I really thought Math would be a battle for us during the homeschool process. I believe taking the time to go back and give him a chance to grasp, has made all the difference in the world!

  18. I’m really interested to hear more about your experience. We’re not doing anything formal with math yet–my son is 6. I’ve just been following his lead/interests; he’s picked up a lot on his own just through observing patterns, etc. Most of what he picks up comes through his interests in money and cooking. I recently started him on addition flashcards due to his frustration with not knowing how to add numbers quickly, but I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I want to look into Life of Fred, because I’ve heard good things.

    When I still taught elementary school, I felt (still do) that we taught concepts like multiplication way too early. While attending the national conference for math teachers several years ago, I went to a session based on the theories of a well-respected math teacher (who had passed away–can’t remember her name) and it was her belief that multiplication should not be taught until at least 6th grade.

    Looking forward to more math posts!
    Wendy’s latest post: finished embroidery: find the light

  19. Math has definitely been our toughest subject to tackle in our homeschool. It never was a subject I enjoyed in school (I felt stupid at math), but I’ve tried to have a good attitude about math around my son. I feel like it was fun in the beginning when my son was young and we unschooled, but now that he’s 12, I feel there’s an expectation to make math lessons formal and the problem with that is neither of us enjoy the traditional approach of me giving the lesson and my son completing a worksheet. So this is timely for me and I hope these posts help me figure out a way to make math enjoyable for both of us.
    Camie’s latest post: Highlights from Peru

  20. I am so excited for this series! I have been mulling over math lately and how I would like to approach it. Re-reading Ruth Beechick’s booklet on arithmetic=[ is on my to-do list this week.

    I know there are resources for play-based math, skills and concepts that can be learned via games (even games that aren’t overtly educational…tricky!), and conversations in everyday life.

    But. Shifting to a model like that is tricky. So hold our hands. 🙂
    Kacie’s latest post: How I am looking forward to the laundry mountain and dishes

  21. Have you looked at Math on the Level? It’s all about teaching at a pace set by your kid’s maturation, and through real life applications. I’ve been using it for a year now with my younger kids (11 and 8). We all love it. It’s given me a framework that makes me feel comfortable working according to each kid’s timetable. http://www.mathonthelevel.com

  22. I think your kids are lucky to have a mom who’s so thoughtful and passionate (and even brave) about their education.

    Personally, I don’t focus on relevance so much as appreciation. I think relevance often reduces math, or any area, to it’s utility. Thinking something is relevant and useful is better than hating it, but it’s not what I’m going for. I don’t (only) teach my kids to read so they can function in society, and I don’t (only) teach them math so they can cook, calculate prices, measure out a landscaping project, or evaluate a newspaper article on a study. I don’t read Anne of Green Gables or David Copperfield because they’re relevant. My husband doesn’t pull over to show everyone a sundog because it’s useful.

    Math is as beautiful as literature or natural phenomena. There’s a never-ending stream of puzzles to play and connections to make.

    It’s funny how once you appreciate something, it becomes relevant, and more importantly, you stop caring if it is. We’re just naturally a math and science kind of family, and all the things that high-schoolers everywhere claim they’ll “never use” manage to come up casually at dinner. We could do without it, but I guess I could also do without Three Men in a Boat references — it would just be sad.

    I hope this doesn’t sound critical. Your article just hit one of my sore spots – only valuing math/science/whatever for utility. I know the way you approach things, there’s no shortage of love or passion for learning!

    (And none of this means I necessarily endorse the standard methods of teaching math.)

    • I’m so glad you made this point, Amanda! I completely agree, and didn’t mean to suggest valuing relevance over beauty. We “inspire, not require,” so looking for the beauty in every subject is always the ultimate goal! In our case with math, we’ve seen that starting with the relevant opens us up to the appreciation of it. But I’m not sure that starting with the nitty-gritty worksheets and abstract thinking most kids have to do at an early age helps them grasp hold of the beauty within that subject. I don’t know if you checked out this link in the post, but maybe you might enjoy sharing it with your kids: http://www.accuweather.com/en/features/trend/photos_the_hidden_geometry_of/42262101

      • If you haven’t read A Mathematician’s Lament, Amanda, you absolutely must! I think you’d find it very inspiring, based on your comment: https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

        • Thanks, Jamie! I’ll look into those. I know you don’t have any lack of valuing beauty – based on this post and the other things you’ve written here and at SteadyMom, so it was hard to describe what I was trying to say. I’m glad you knew what I meant.

          I look forward to the rest of the series. Our oldest (so far) has no problem going from nitty-gritty and abstract to appreciation, but that’s probably personality, and maybe age. I’ll have to pay attention as the others get older, because they probably won’t respond the same way.

  23. I can’t wait to see the future posts. Thanks for diving into this topic!

  24. I’ll definitely be staying tuned for more of your thoughts! This is a great topic to explore. I too was an excellent memorizer which made math come quite easily for me until calculus when I had to work a lot harder to understand. I never really questioned when I’d use it because I was good at delaying gratification and trusted adults who told me math would open doors, even when it seemed pointless at times. Plus I had a high tolerance for pure academic exercises without connections because I like the patterns and order and “perfection” of math. My son is only 5 1/2, but his personality is so vastly different that I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ll teach/guide him without creating unnecessary frustration and killing his natural curiosity and love for learning. I’ve backed down quite a bit from my pre-child homeschool plans and am cobbling together something a lot “looser” than I could ever have imagined accepting even 3 years ago. He seems to be pretty “mathy” even without traditionally structured lessons so far. And he’s leaning by leaps and bounds when we focus on things that are meaningful to his everyday life. We recently started giving him an allowance so suddenly his money skills are blossoming. And since he LOVES board games with Mommy, Sum Swamp has been awesome for cementing basic addition/subtraction, odds/evens, and thinking of + and – as going forward or back. I smiled when I saw it in your picture as he begs to play it daily. Since starting it at 4, he’s gone from using counters to doing 95% in his head.

  25. Looking forward to your series. I just compiled what we’ve learned about math anxiety in a new post, and I’m eager to see your thoughts on home math education in the coming weeks. Thanks for tackling an important, complex topic!
    Pamela @RedWhiteandGrew’s latest post: Eight Steps to Ease Homeschool Math Anxiety and Increase Confidence

  26. Im really looking forward to your coming articles. A couple of my kids have really struggled with math. Last year we encountered tears and frustrations on most days. I have used a handful of popular curriculums, but just kept coming back to the thought that I needed to ditch the curriculum at least for now if I really wanted to see success. So this year we did it. Threw out the math curriculum for the ones who needed it. Its been really good but also quiet a challenge for me because I can’t depend on a book anymore to just tell me what to do.

  27. Great post and I am so interested to read your upcoming related posts as well! We decided to home school for first grade this year after public school kindergarten. All I have done this year is make sure we play a game each day that is sort of math related whether that be with numbers or logic or strategy. Next year I feel like we need to do something a bit more formal but I agree that really in the younger years anything outside of really practical daily use kind of math seems too much.

  28. Cameron says:

    I am following this series! We are having trouble with math for our kindergartner because of lack of TIME. I have a 3yo and 12m old, and for kindergarten I’ve dedicated just an hour of time 4x a week for academic work. We chose Saxon 1 for our daughter (5) because my husband was familiar with the company, having used it as a homeschooler himself (though at an older age/level), and she seemed ready for the concepts. My complaint is that it takes too much time. The level one lessons look designed to take an hour of a teacher’s time. Ironically, my daughter likes it; grasps the concepts; and never struggles with wanting to do math. She is getting it, and learning. I like the scripted format. But there are too many elements to each lesson and I simply can’t spend an hour on math every day for her. I don’t think that’s appropriate for a kindergartner and it doesn’t fit our schedule anyway. So, I’m in a quandary. I tried skipping the meeting book entirely for a while, but we seemed to be missing some key components then. I’ve also tried spreading each lesson out over two days, with the intent of finishing half the book by June, but I always feel behind. A friend let me look at her Horizons 1 books, but with just three months left in our school year (we do plan to continue slowly, irregularly, over the summer) I am loathe to try a new method in which concepts are introduced differently and in different sequence. So I will likely keep trimming the Saxon stuff to fit our needs; really wish we had time to do the whole thing, because I do think it’s well done and it fits my daughter so well! I would love any tips on shorter curricula (time per lesson) if people have them.

    • I would definitely recommend Life of Fred if it’s shorter time that you’re looking for. But it is definitely a very different approach to Saxon, so you’d need to check it out and see if it might be a good fit for you. The author recommends starting in 1st grade, but you could certainly take a peek. Each lesson/chapter takes about 15 minutes: http://lifeoffredmath.com/lof-elementary.php

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