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.
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.
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.
“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?