Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Question of Mathematics

Are you worried about your child's ability in mathematics, or about which curriculum to use, or -- let's not kid ourselves -- about our own ability in maths and whether or not we can teach anything about the subjects to our kids?

Judging from the number of times this subject comes up in the various home-ed forums I belong to, you would definitely not be alone in your maths-angst.  Every week, there will be at least one person who asks questions along these lines.  For that reason, I won't try to answer all the questions about maths in one blog post: it's just too big a subject (in more ways than one!).

Instead, I'll answer just one question here:

what is the best way to get my child 
not just to learn how to do maths, 
but to learn actually how to like it?

First of all, let me say that I am not -- repeat NOT -- a specialist in mathematics.  That's why I was so glad when I came across a book that 'splains things to me in such a clear way.  It's called "The Elephant in the Classroom" by Jo Boaler.  Get it, read it.  It's that simple. 

(Now, if you're a woman, then I would expect, according to Dr Boaler's research, that you will not be prone to accepting my advice without an explanation as to why you should read it, so suffice to say, it's because she identifies the ways that traditional maths teaching has gone wrong, the ways that maths teaching can go right, and the ways that parents can support this excitement about maths at home.)

This book was refreshing in more ways than one.  Basically, it answered the looming question in my life about why I scraped by with a C in Calculus at university when I'd been a straight A student all through high school (once, when I was 14, I even scored 107 out of 100 on my report card -- how's that for a mathematical mystery??!!!). 

After you have bought this book and read it, then you might want to take the lead from a friend of mine who has determined that she will buy all the books that are designed to make maths fun.  The Sir Cumference books, for example.  The Murderous Maths series. The two books about  Penrose the Mathematical Cat, the Number Devil, and for the older child, 1089 and All That: A Journey into Mathematics.  Charlotte Mason enthusiasts also suggest books about mathematicians, such as Mathematicians Are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians .

Reading about maths
can be captivating  

Now that you've:
  • read the book about why you need to make maths fun, 
  • and had your children read books about maths that are fun, 
  • then you need to start introducing maths that is fun.

Puzzles are a good way of doing this.  If you just search on the internet for maths puzzles (or even "math" puzzles -- in the UK we always say "maths"), then you'll discover more sites than you'd ever use in a decade, most of which have the answers along with the questions.  At least one site also has a forum  so you can find out why the answer works that way.

Your only problem now is having more maths in your life than you know what to do with.  Here's what we do in our family: nights when we have dinner together around the table, we talk about maths. Maybe just once or twice a week, and we have to be firm that the toddler doesn't carry on his own conversation with his peas at the far end of the table, otherwise no one can concentrate on drawing a graph about a monk falling down a mountain.  (This is one of the many interesting examples suggested by Boaler in her book -- about the monk, not the toddler and his peas!)

As most subjects, maths in conversations like this can sometimes (ahem ... often) get beyond my ability, and that's when I simply say that I will have to go away and think about it (ahem ... ask my maths-minded friends).

I'm sure there are still burning questions to be answered about which maths curriculum can support this bid to make maths interesting and fun and exciting, and it seems appropriate that I should provide a survey about curricula in the near future.

In the meantime, I think it should be a matter of expanding our definition of mathematics, learning to discern patterns in the world around us, and trying to have some fun with it, for goodness' sake!

Practical math:
measuring the length a blue whale
(we started at the beginning of the sidewalk!)
What about you?  Any good maths books you've read that your children enjoyed?  Any good websites for puzzles or games?  Any good tips for a regular dose of practical, fun maths challenges?  Do you want to suggest a curriculum for considering amongst the good, the bad, or the ugly mathematics hall of fame? All comments and suggestions are encouraged, so please let yourself be heard.


  1. World maths day is an annual free event, which has sadly just happened for this year. It covers speed mental maths-addition, subtraction and multiplication. This was a real enthusiasm boost for our son. There are certificates and people around the world to play against. It is linked to matheletics which isn't free and we haven't used but sounds fun although I suspect that regular challenges might become less exciting!

  2. Thanks for the ideas. I really like the Living Math website. We have used lots of her book ideas for making maths more fun.


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