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Why I Love Math...And Hope My Kids Will Too

posted Oct 18, 2015, 3:30 PM by Robin Dutton-Cookston   [ updated Oct 22, 2015, 11:18 AM ]
by Vicky Keston
I have always loved math. Numbers are clear to me; they give you a firm answer. They express what happens in the world from physics to biology. Swimming, movement, baking, buying, so many things expressed with math. Just try learning physics without calculus; it loses much of the beauty and simplicity of how things happen. Numbers can also tell a story when you blow up or shrink graphs. It is fun to think about selection bias and how numbers can share different sides of the same issue.

I’ve raised my kids to enjoy math concepts from an early age. When we bake, we together figure out how to halve or double a recipe. When we serve food, my kids figure out how to add up the needed food. When we dive, we figure out negative numbers, and when we climb, the positive ones. When we play games, the children count out money, add up the dots on the dice, and compare their outcomes. Perhaps my children are precocious, perhaps they’ve inherited my math abilities, or perhaps it’s just practice, but they love math as well.

You can imagine my disappointment, then, when from the first day of elementary school last year, my son returned home complaining about math. “Why do they give me such easy math,” he asked. “I want harder math,” he repeated. If I asked about his day, a typical response starting last year was, “Good, I played with X, but math is boring.” From my discussions with other SFUSD parents, he is not alone, nor is he a math genius. He is just a regular kid who is talented at and loves math.

Dangers of Coasting in Class
Early on, I negotiated replacing the math homework with online math. The beauty of this program is the automatic adjustment to his level. He finished first grade “gifted” math in six weeks. He leisurely finished second grade math the rest of the school year, but it had quite a few older concepts, such as multiplication and adding two equations. According to the online math program, which bases his movement on keeping around an 80% correct rate.

But what about in class? Why, when I meet with his teachers, would I be disappointed with a worksheet with all correct answers? Why would I be happy to find out he convinced his aftercare teacher to give him two years advanced homework and got only half right? I believe the assertion of the SFUSD Math Department that he needs to make mistakes to grow neurons. Last year, I attended a talk by Carol Dweck and at the end asked her what to do if my child complained that math was too easy. She replied that for some children, math comes easier than to others and that coasting was dangerous for their mindset. She then urged me twice to demand harder math.

In my after school enrichment program, the smartest kids have the hardest time with the unknown, of projects that are not spelled out for them. They panic when they don’t know the right answer immediately. It seems like they are so used to everything being easy that they forget how to work and lose the ability to stick to a problem until they figure it out.

Why Not Supplement at Home Instead?
Many parents receive suggestions that their kids should supplement at home because they are ahead of the math curriculum. While I am happy to replace homework, I am concerned that our children lose out on sports, arts and music. While other kids participate in Little League, our children should be home practicing math? Of course not!

Language Arts as a Model
For language arts, teachers districtwide test children with Fountas & Pinnell and serve up the right level book for their level. The entire curriculum revolves around teaching children using books that are at their tested level, not too hard or too easy. Teachers receive training on this for both reading and for writer’s workshop.

Children who enter kindergarten reading chapter books are not expected to read Hop on Pop each day before they are allowed to open Magic Treehouse. Children who are more advanced are also expected to write longer sentences, more detailed paragraphs and work on their language skills.

So why not give children a math test and serve up right level worksheets for their level? Children who are advanced at math need only a few minutes instruction and then can happily work out new concepts on their own.

Supplementing at home sounds like a fantastic idea until you add up the hours a child is not learning in school and then expect the child to give up sports or art or music or free play to learn at home.

My Experience . . . From Across the Country
An amazing teacher, Eric Walstein, fostered my love of math in junior and high school. Our junior high school in Montgomery County Public Schools started a new program at the time called Unified Math. Starting in seventh grade, Walstein taught us a combination of the traditional algebra sequence along with advanced concepts, like group theory. The class was not for the weak of heart; he was extraordinarily challenging and expected kids to work hard. We had midterms and finals that extended four class days as the principal would not allow him longer than one class period. There was no prouder moment that the first time I earned 100 on one of his multi-day tests. It’s perhaps my proudest school moment to date.

Long before Carol Dweck published her mindset theory, Walstein knew that working hard was important. He also recognized, as Dweck does, that some people have more innate abilities at math and that coasting is a dangerous outcome of “math kids” in a general education classroom. I remember vividly Walstein insisting we work, and I also remember the satisfaction in learning something hard and challenging. The outcome is indisputable. Walstein’s class produced numerous engineers, scientists and doctors. Most of us went on to pass the Calculus B/C exam with fives and start college at Calculus III. I personally saved a semester’s tuition thanks to the numerous AP credits, but perhaps just as important, I developed study habits that served me well in both engineering school and business school years later.

What are Alternatives?
For schools with multiple kids who complain to their parents that math (or even school!) is too easy, they could group them together for a short lesson going deeper in the lesson, for instance teach the class about addition and the smaller group about handling multiple digits.

The schools also have computers. At A.P. Giannini Middle School, children use online math to differentiate the work.

At Peabody Elementary School, a math specialist helps the teachers differentiate both homework and school work. 

Another option could be grouping children by level instead of by grade.