Teaching Math to Children

Sometimes I get so upset about all the problems in the world that I just want to write an endless stream of depressing rants. It’s nice to focus on the positive sometimes too, though. And homeschooling is usually positive for us. Learning happens in the least expected places, and my children are always surprising me. They seem to breathe in knowledge like air. I guess I should have expected it, but children begin as such an extension of oneself that it is a startling delight to see that they’ve developed their own unique ways of looking at the world.

I think four-year-old Dominique expressed it best a few weeks ago when he informed Tony, “I know a lot of things; and not all of them are from you.”

How true. And how wonderful.

It’s wonderful for a lot of reasons, not least of which the (little known) fact that I am not an expert on everything. Take math, for instance. I was pretty much the stereotypical lit geek as a teenager. I read voraciously. I wrote poetry and stories, organized my siblings into a literary club called “The Live Poets’ Society,” and edited my own county-wide homeschoolers’ newsletter. I also did math every day, but I wouldn’t really have classified it as my passion. Maybe my Saxon math book killed my soul. Maybe nobody ever informed me that math is poetry too, or that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”

Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t say I had severe math anxiety. It was more like math apathy. I was perfectly happy to take foreign language and logic classes in college to satisfy the advanced mathematics requirement.

Fast forward a dozen years or so, and I’m a homeschooling mom who wants her children to love math. I want them to love everything, in fact. Is that too much to ask? Charlotte Mason would say no. “Education,” in her words, “is the science of relations.” From her point of view, teaching is not about stuffing knowledge into children’s heads. It is about helping them to develop relationships with different aspects of their world. And those relationships imply emotional attachment.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those cool moms, who does cute, artsy math lapbooks:

or makes homemade pi-shaped chocolates:

Maybe someday I’ll grow up to be one of those moms.

In the meantime, though, I’ve read exhaustively about different math programs: Math Mammoth, Miquon, Making Math Meaningful, Math-U-See, Ray’s, Life of Fred, the list goes on and on. Some people love Singapore Math, which supposedly takes advantage of the methods Singapore uses to rank so highly when it comes to worldwide math achievement (besides exacting parents, drills at home, and a culture in which math is highly valued). There’s also the various literature that recommends not starting formal math until the age of eight, or even ten. MEP, an experimental British math program based on a Hungarian model, is widely lauded in homeschooling circles as helping children to really understand math. And then there’s Living Math, which advocates teaching your children math by reading them picture books like Anno’s Magic Seeds and How Much is a Million.

Let’s face it, I’m a bit paralyzed by the choices. Fortunately, my children are obsessed with fairness, so we get quite a bit of practice with informal division (five cookies divided by four people, etc. Yes, they are happy to work it out to the bitter end, rather than just settling for one person getting the last cookie). But I’m ready to move on from that, O.K.?

The other day somebody mentioned Khan Academy to me. That’s not strange. About seven or eight people have mentioned it to me in the past couple of months. But this time I decided I’d pop over to the website and check it out. And Khan Academy turns out to be pretty amazing. It is the brainchild of Sal Khan, a math guy who is actually good at teaching math to other people. His website has over 2000 videos (all in Charlotte Mason-friendly 10-20 minute lengths) explaining concepts from algebra to chemistry to economics. He and a dedicated team work full-time making learning accessible to people all over the world.

And unlike many online e-learning sites, Khan Academy is completely free. Why? Well, in the words of its founder, “When I’m 80, I want to feel that I helped give access to a world-class education to billions of students around the world. Sounds a lot better than starting a business that educates some subset of the developed world that can pay $19.95/month and eventually selling it to some text book company or something. I already have a beautiful wife, a hilarious son, two hondas and a decent house. What else does a man need?”

Yep, Sal is on my personal list of the most awesome people in the world. He is great at explaining things, and helping people feel comfortable even with difficult concepts. His videos are not really aimed at the primary school set, but I decided I might as well give the Arithmetic videos a try with six-year-old Axa. I was a little skeptical. I HATE educational programs aimed at kids that try to make everything so “exciting” and “cool,” and use dumbed down vocabulary and silly songs, and I was hoping Khan Academy wouldn’t be like that.

It wasn’t. We watched the first lesson, and she was fascinated with the concept of the number line. In fact, she hung on Sal’s every word. Even though I already knew the stuff he was talking about, his low-key conversational manner and obvious interest in the subject made it interesting for me to watch too. In fact, I’m planning to spend some time this week with his videos on Current Economics and the Credit Crisis. And then maybe Geometry, which I never found that fascinating, but actually really must be. After all,

“Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.”

Maybe Sal Khan can give me that elusive passion for math.

photo credits: lapbook, chocolate pi,

5 thoughts on “Teaching Math to Children

  • November 10, 2011 at 4:55 pm
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    MEP math is free, as well – and the #1 selling point when I had to choose. I have friends who switch from Saxon to Math-U-See to Fred and are still not sure… but we’ve had excellent success with MEP. That and I touted it to my sister, who printed out three copies of each year for her girls (when they were 3) and then promptly decided that she couldn’t handle creating curriculum out of pieces and went the school-in-a-box route… and GAVE THEM ALL TO MEEEEE!!! ((gleeful laughter))

    Don’t slaughter me for this, but I saw the picture of the math lapbook and thought, “Sarah did *that*?!?! That’s fantastic – I may have to put one together for the kids, myself!!!” Actually, it’s only this past school year (we school November to November) that I started lapbooking… we’ve done one for each holiday, as a ‘break’ from normal school lessons. I’ve really had a good time with them, although some people are just crazy-fanatical about them, I’ve noticed.

    Thank you for recommending Khan. I’ve seen the name around, but dismissed it as ‘too advanced’ from the descriptions. I’ll have to check it out.

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  • August 16, 2011 at 12:36 am
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    Glad I’m not the only one that agonizes over the decision on how to teach my child math. I’ll have to check out Khan’s videos. Thanks.

  • August 5, 2011 at 2:08 pm
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    Plus if the kids ever get sick of math they can yell “KHAAAAAAAAN!”

  • August 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm
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    Hi Sarah, thanks for visiting ‘Under An English Sky’. You have a lovely blog ;o) I wanted to say how lucky you are to have been to archaeological dig! How exciting! It’s a pity the artifacts can’t be housed in there country of origin though. I feel very blessed to have been able to gaze upon these relics of history!
    Blessings
    Shirley

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