Thursday, September 2, 2010

Get All Mathematical!

Okay, I confess. I am a Math Resource Junkie. Not that I do much with my math resources, especially now that we've embraced unschooling everything (and we're deeply curious about how that will play out math-wise), but I still fondly gaze in their general direction now and then. Once in awhile, I even pull them off the shelves to flip through or out of the drawers to puzzle about, just so they don't get too lonely. To be fair, my son also enjoys a lot of the resources we have for math and will often choose to read through certain books or play certain games just because he's interested.

I would love to share some of the crown jewels in my collection with you, though, especially as you find yourself creating learning plans and figuring out ways to spend your DL resource allowances. Or you (or your children) may be tired of what you have been using and would like to explore something a little different. But I must warn you: you won't find much in the way of packaged curriculum on this list. I'm not big on packaged curriculum. I've looked at almost every program out there for grades K through 9 for Math and I've never found one that makes my heart pitter-patter with true mathematical joy. The ones I haven't seen for myself, I've heard parents talk about and even the most promising lose their shine very quickly.

Why is this? Most packaged curricula are created with classroom control and classroom teaching and classroom pacing in mind. Kids in seats. Kids passively learning. Teacher in charge. Even out-of-the-box math curricula (including those created specifically for homeschooling families) tend to still follow this pattern... and this is why your child, who was so keen on their math curriculum two months ago, suddenly acts like "math time" is the most dry, torturous, awful experience in his or her life. It probably feels that way.

So here's the big secret: you don't actually need math curriculum for kids to cover math concepts. Yay!

And there are some serious problems with math textbooks as nicely explained in this TEDx Talk by high school Math teacher Dan Meyer. My favourite quote: "The math serves the conversation, the conversation doesn't serve the math."

Math is a tool we use to solve problems. It helps us build things, design things, figure things out... but the way that text books are designed flip that around so that the problem is math. That anxiety you used to feel about "did I get the answer right"? Well, that's because textbooks set it up that way. It actually shouldn't be like that. Also, it's easy to learn to use the textbook and answer the questions without gaining a firm understanding of the concepts. And most textbooks don't help us develop "patient" problem solving skills.

The video explains it better. It's worth the 10 minutes to hear what Dan Meyer has to say about it. My other favourite quote: "Math makes sense of the world. Math is the vocabulary for your own intuition."

And here is Dan on Good Morning America demonstrating how to beat the line-up.

A Brief and Necessary Note about the BC Learning Outcomes (LOs)

If you want to take a look at the Prescribed Learning Outcomes, you can go here. The Ministry of Education now has a searchable database that you can download and browse through. But it's not necessary.

The LOs are organized into larger categories such as Number, Patterns and Relations, Shape and Space, and Statistics and Probability, which are broken down into subcategories which contain the detailed LOs, which actually aren't all that detailed.

But here's the thing. You don't need to stretch Math learning out over 12+ years in order for a child to become competent at using Math (according to their needs). In fact, many children develop math phobia or math anxiety and it could happen because they are introduced to abstract concepts before they are developmentally ready to handle them. Just like some kids are early readers and some pick it up later, the same thing applies to math. But with math, we rarely allow kids room to wait until they are ready.

Most of us come with our own anxiety about math and we really really want our kids to "get" it and to love it. Or we see it as a necessary evil to function in society. But if your child is showing any frustration with math, walk away from it for awhile, especially if you are using a curriculum.

I recently heard a story about a young woman who was unschooled, with no formal math, until she decided to attend regular school for Grade 10. And her final math mark was over 90%! Now, that won't necessarily happen for all children, but it shows what's possible... and that it's really and truly okay to wait.

Here's another example from my personal experience: For one year, I worked with Jr. High kids who were in a school district alternate program. These learners were "on contract" with the program and came in for a few hours each week to work on the core subjects. They were students who had either been suspended from their middle schools (often for attendance issues) or were actively engaged in school refusal. My teaching partner and I worked with them for a limited amount of time each week while the kids were on "sabbatical" from regular school. 90% of the kids who came through the program hated math, passionately, and often did not even understand basic concepts they would have been "taught" in the primary grades and thought they were stupid. Within 2 to 3 months, they were all at their grade level and feeling great about themselves. It didn't take much but some time and kind support.

If, after reading these stories, you are still concerned about your child meeting learning outcomes, there are many "roads to Rome" and most of them are a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating than slogging through a packaged curriculum your child hates. And here's another secret: you know the phrase, "wherever you go, there you are"? It applies to math curricula as well... changing curriculum will only provide short-term relief in most cases. If your child is enrolled in a program that makes it hard to follow your child's lead in the area of math, then by all means, look for a different curriculum. Or... switch programs.

Roads to Rome

Math is delightful. I wouldn't have said that when I was slogging through first year Calculus at University, but I feel that way about it now, now that I've "deschooled" that part of me that used to see Math as merely a paper and pencil task. I've also had time to explore the different ways that formal (and informal) math learning can be approached and I've seen the land beyond the textbook (and it's mighty fine).

The next few posts are going to list some different resources for Math learning. Most of these resources allow for great flexibility: you can choose to use them in the way that best fits your family and your philosophy. Unschoolers can strew them and folks who follow a structured approach can supplement with them or use them in a unit study. It's all good.