Why You Don’t Have to Be “Great” at Math in Order to Teach It to Your Kids

Is that your lunch... or a lesson in fractions?

There was the new math, the new new math, and so on. Nothing has worked. There are lots of reasons for this, one of which is that the people who teach in elementary schools are not mathematicians. Most of them are math phobic, just like most people in the larger culture. They, after all, are themselves products of the school system, and one thing the school system does well is to generate a lasting fear and loathing of mathematics in most people who pass through it. — Peter Grey

When we decided to homeschool, I was most intimidated at the prospect of teaching math.

It’s not my personal strong suit. Well, it isn’t anymore, at least. According to my mother, I was better at math than language in first and second grade. Later there was that uncomfortable situation in 4th grade that left me gun shy with math in general. On the SAT and GRE, the math sections gave me fits. I rocked, however, the logic section of the GRE. I attribute that to wonderful advice by a teaching assistant to approach that section like “the series of silly games that it is.”

Funny how approaching a difficult task with a light heart can lead to success.

When we first started Kindergarten homeschool this summer–after a very successful run at preschool, I planned to stick with math workbooks. There would be no wandering, no exploration on our own. We’d approach math differently than history, science, language and literature–topics where I feel confident exploring joyfully.

In hindsight, I see that my trepidation was causing me to suck the fun right outta math. I was denying my student any access to mathematical bliss.

A few weeks into things, I loosened up the workbook schedule. Why? The pupil rebelled. Loudly. As in, “Mom, I hate worksheets.”

I resisted the urge to panic.

“We are in Kindergarten, so what’s the rush?,” I wondered to myself. I did some research into early childhood math and came up with a couple of games, including Monopoly, that would help us grasp key concepts and skills. (The other favorite classic game around here? Battleship, a precursor to coordinate geometry.) We began to talk about math the way that we discuss language and history–as part of our everyday life. Miles per hour on the highway, ounces in a can of tomatoes, greater than/less than,  identifying thousands/hundreds/tens/ones in place value… opportunities to chat about these concepts come up in myriad ways almost every day. Last week he asked me if there was such a thing as a “negative googolplexian.”

With the new approach, Tater began to tackle math with a curiosity and freedom and joy that I never once saw when I cracked the whip with the workbooks. We still use the books, mind you, but now they are for assessment rather than drilling. A workbook page here or there reassures us that we’re making progress and that my non-traditional pedagogy is effective (or not).

In case there was any lingering doubt about the validity of this approach, fate intervened to save me. A friend–a former college math major, mind you–shared via Pinterest a 2009 post at Psychology Today by Peter Grey. Reading it is worth your time–there’s that snippet up top to whet your appetite–but suffice it to say that, like reading, until kids’ brains are ready, the “drill, baby, drill” approach to math education isn’t wholly necessary.

In fact, according to research referenced by Grey, it may even be harmful.

We may change up our approach down the road, but for now we’ll stick to approaching math joyfully, playfully, and with a kiss to the dice before we give ’em a roll.

Explore More:

Mathwire.com – A great resource for math games and activities that are tied to state standards.

How I Learned Algebra – An interesting post by the provocative Penelope Trunk

Pizza Fractions Bingo Game by Learning Resources – In addition to family-room classics like Monopoly and Battleship, we’ve had a lot of fun with this game here at home on pizza nights.

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