Math is one of those subjects that all but the most devout unschoolers tend to require of their children. Like music or dance, it is usually best learned in sequential steps from basic to advanced. But if the child does not want to learn math, what is the relaxed yet anxious parent to do? I have read stories of unschooled youngsters forgoing textbook math until they decide to take SAT tests, then learning everything they need to know in a matter of months instead of years. I have heard of kids digging into math out of necessity to complete some project such as building a chicken coop or starting a home business. For me, I decided that math was too important to leave to chance (what if my child failed the SATs someday and blamed me for not getting into college?)
I thoroughly researched all the available math programs and let my son choose the one he thought would be best. When the manipulative-based book arrived in the mail, all went well for the first day or so, until my son decided that math was confusing and boring. I tried encouraging words and gentle humor, hot cocoa and soothing music, but after 2 weeks he was in a rage over every page. He simply could not learn anything – REFUSED to learn anything in that frame of mind. I talked to him about the importance of math but he was not impressed. I tried another math program. It made no difference to him because he had already decided that he was no good at math. Finally, in desperation, I found books full of math games and hands-on activities. Success! He enjoyed all games – the more physical and imaginative the better. I also did a lot of research on learning styles that year and found ways to teach him math without him even knowing it.
We didn’t crack open a textbook for four more years. By then, he was much more mature and aware that he was behind his peers in math, so he wanted to get caught up with them. Now, at age 17, he still doesn’t like math, but he makes himself do it (not me!) for his own reasons. And yes, he did catch up. He knows he wants to go to college and wants to do well in the SAT tests. My fears that he would blame me were unjustified because he “owns” his own education. He knows it is his responsibility, not mine. I think it was important for me to back off in the younger years because it became his choice, not his duty nor his punishment, to learn math. Fortunately, the years of just playing with numbers also helped him overcome his fear of textbooks and developed his intuitive understanding of how math works.
My worries over Son #1 were made easier because of Son #2, who seemed to teach himself multiplication at the age of 3. This boy grew up to be a walking calculator and advanced so rapidly through math books that I let him just skip whole sections. He started Algebra at age 10 and soon reached the point where I couldn’t remember how to do any of it – thank goodness he doesn’t mind teaching himself. All I have to do is check his answers.
His ease with math convinced me that it was not my fault Son #1 despaired over math, it was simply a matter of different learning styles and strengths. My job was to be aware of those strengths and help find them the resources they need. Son #2 creates wish lists on Amazon of what books he would like to read because we can’t find any of them in bookstores or libraries. He is obsessed with computer programming, game physics and game design. He recently asked for a college level book on 3D math. It’s just his thing.
My daughter was a different story altogether from her two older brothers. She understood math concepts just fine as long as they were presented in word problems or with manipulatives. But she absolutely struggled with representing those concepts in equations. She could never remember the difference between “plus” signs and “equal” signs and all the other signs – no matter how many worksheets she did. It just made her furious. It was like her oldest brother all over again, but this time I couldn’t leave her alone because we lived in a new state that required testing.
I found a great book called “Math for Humans” by Mark Wahl that explains how to teach math through the 8 intelligences. My daughter has strong spatial and interpersonal intelligences, so I made an effort to integrate art and storytelling with her math lessons. I made paper dolls to represent the plus, minus, multiplication, divide and equal signs (they each wore a hat resembling the appropriate sign). Every math problem became a story problem with the paper dolls and the cuisinaire rods – she finally relaxed.
As she got older, we could replace the manipulatives with more drawing. The margins of her Math-U-See book were covered in drawings, diagrams and doodles and it made all the difference for her. We also used math type story books from the library. She always remembered characters, faces and names. The trick was to turn inanimate, abstract math symbols into something she cared about.
I’ll write up my unit study on anthropomorphizing math in a future topic.