Before I had any school-aged children, I typeset my sister’s master’s thesis. It was titled Scientists, school teachers, and the two cultures of mathematics. Her research showed how school teachers generally think math is a magical machine that chugs out mysterious answers when you drop in numbers. Scientists, on the other hand, think math is a tool to solve problems. (Although to the best of my recollection, that’s not exactly how she worded it.)
After reading her research and following it up with more study, I was determined to pre-teach math to my kids so they wouldn’t be ruined by school teachers who, according to Lucy Sells, usually choose an elementary education major to avoid upper-level math.
Obviously this wasn’t an ideal solution (I also pre-taught reading to avoid the insipid whole language deal), it was the best this one-time-homeschool-critic could come up with.
Growing up with a math professor for a dad, it just seemed obvious that math was important and useful. For some reason, far too many kids in the US don’t grow up with such an advantageous viewpoint. And they aren’t getting it from schools whose teachers don’t like math and don’t understand it very well.
One of my favorite bits of research took kids using a math text that focused heavily on drill and speed and compared them to a group of similar children who studied with a more hands-on, guided-discovery method. The kids in each group were given this story problem:
You go to the store and buy three loaves of bread. Each paper bag holds two loaves. How many bags do you need at checkout?
The first group answered that you would need 1.5 bags. The second said you would need one bag and could carry the second, or two bags with one only half full.
That’s what I’m talking about.
Fortunately, some schools are looking outside the school system to find better ways to teach math that work. The response to intervention of this kind can be very positive, if the system leads to actual mathematical understanding and exploration, rather than just rote memorization or meaningless facts and “plug and chug” number manipulation.
Whether you love math or not, make sure your kids have the math tools they need to remove big barriers in the future. And please remember, math is crucial for girls, too!