(ETA I feel aware that this is a very non-political post at a very political time. I have been grieving quietly over here since the American election results came in, and feeling rather non-functional as I obsessively read Facebook articles and knitted like my life depended on it. I just needed a little bit of normal, so finishing this math post was my bit of daily-life coming back. Hoping to find a grieving/living balance in the days to come. xoxo )
We’ve been working on math blocks in our homeschool this month and they are going so well. (Really, I want to pinch myself. I can’t quite believe how well homeschool is going this year!)
[insert grateful but somewhat nervous laughter here.]
Working with a holistic math approach with my kids has got me thinking a lot about math and math teaching in general. My own elementary math experience was not joyous or empowering in the least. Instead it was bewildering and anxiety-filled. And yet, here I am working with the same concepts I remember finding puzzling and cryptic- fractions, carrying and borrowing, multiplication, division, place value- and instead my kids are playing around with the ideas like they are toys (okay. not always. sometimes they just don’t want to do it. but generally speaking, they do enjoy it quite a lot.)
I don’t think it’s because I am a spectacular math teacher (math still scares the pants off me.) But I do think there are some real difference in a holistic approach to math, from what was going on in the math classrooms of my youth.
Math as discovery
I took two courses in my teacher’s training learning about teaching math to kids. One was just fine, but one was amazing, and after many mathematical epiphanies, my main take home message was that math can make sense to kids when they are given the time and space to work through ideas and come to their own discoveries.
I find I have to constantly remind myself of this as I teach my own kids- that I need to sloooow down, to let them play around with their own understandings, to let them make some mistakes and come to their own conclusions as they engage with the “doing” of mathematics.
Another thing I took from that amazing math-teaching class was the “dangers of the drill.” Our prof made all of us student-teachers solemnly swear to never, ever, ever, subject our students to timed math drills. Amen.
Math as story
I know I talk about this all the time here, but I love how the holistic approaches often teach concepts through story first. It can be tricky to pull this off with math- I don’t always manage it- but when I do, I sense my kid’s understanding deepen. It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy- a quick tale told about brothers dividing some discovered riches, or a picture book I find at the library that illustrates an idea I want to introduce.
Math as art
Since we’ve gotten back into making mainlesson books this year, I am amazed at how much drawing helps my kids remember a concept. Something in the act of carefully creating a colourful page of math in their own special books seems to make it more real to them. Plus going back through their books is a much more pleasant form of review than flipping through a workbook (though we use workbooks too.)
Math by hand
Using lots of different kids of models and manipulatives really helps my kids. I wish I had been able to play around with cuisinaire rods and base 10 blocks as a kid, I’m sure this would have taken some of the mystery out of those rules I had to memorize, (like why the heck to you sometimes write a 9 and sometimes write a ten when borrowing in subtraction? This was utterly impenetrable to me. Base 10 blocks would have cleared things up!)
We are using lots of simple models in our fraction block right now, little paper pies, pattern blocks, paper strips, grids, dot arrays. And cooking of course. Nothing like having to double or half a recipe for hands-on learning!
Math as a game
There are lots of math games on the market- we could use to load up on some- but there are also a ton of ideas on line. I find adding a dice and some simple game pieces to some of our manipulatives is often all we need to practice the concepts in a fun way.
Cait at My Little Poppies has some great ideas on commercial math games.
Erica at What Do We Do All Day has lots of great do-it-yourself math activities if you are looking for ideas.
Not rushing the rules
I think this is what was most damaging about my own math education- rushing the rules. Learning the standard computations is important of course, but holistic math would give kids lots of time to build strong number sense before they get handed the rules.
I realized as I planned my son’s fraction block that I was wanting to rush to the “meat” of it- common denominators, computing fractions- when he needed way more time to really sink his teeth into what fractions are. So we are doing two shorter fraction blocks this year, leaving the rules and computations for later in the year when I am sure his understanding is really solid.
It is quite a journey, this business of teaching my kids- an ever evolving adventure- but I hope that learning in this way can help to bring math concepts into their world in a meaningful and concrete way. That’s the hope. For now, we are having a lot of fun with it.