“I’m so tired of being ignorant about math. I can memorize rules and do calculations, but if I miss a step the numbers make no sense at all, and I can’t spot what went wrong. Another struggle I have is keeping everything organized in my mind. When I learn a new concept or strategy, I easily forget it. My son is only a toddler now, but as he grows up, I don’t want to burden him with my own failures. Where should I start?”
As a first step, convince yourself that math is interesting enough to learn on its own merits, because parental guilt will only carry you so far. Start with Steven Strogatz’s “Elements of Math” series from The New York Times, or pick up his book The Joy of x.
As a next step, reassure yourself that elementary math is hard to understand, so it’s not strange that you get confused or don’t know how to explain a topic. Get Liping Ma’s Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics from the library or order a used copy of the first edition. Ma examines what it means to understand math and to clearly explain it to others.
Don’t rush through the book as if it were a novel. There are four open-ended questions, each at the beginning of a chapter, after which several possible answers are analyzed. When you read one of these questions, close the book. Think about how you would answer it yourself. Write out a few notes, explaining your thoughts as clearly as you can. Only then, after you have decided what you would have said, read the rest of that section.
Don’t worry if you can’t understand everything in the book. Come back to it again in a couple of years. You’ll be surprised how much more you learn.
Books for Parents and Teachers
To build up your own understanding of elementary arithmetic, the Kitchen Table Math series by Chris Wright offers explanations and activities you can try with your children.
If you want more detailed guidance in understanding and explaining each stage of elementary mathematics, you can pick up a textbook designed for teachers in training. I like the Parker & Baldridge Elementary Mathematics for Teachers books and the Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics: Developmentally Appropriate Instruction series. The two series are completely different, but they complement each other well. Check out the sample chapters from the publishers’ websites to see which one you prefer.
- Elementary Mathematics and Elementary Geometry for Teachers
- Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics: preK-2nd and 3rd-5th and 6th-8th grades
Discover more great books on my Living Math Books for Parents and Other Teachers page.
Focus on Relationships
As you learn, focus on how the math concepts relate to each other. Then the more you learn, the easier you will find it to connect things in your mind and to grasp new ideas.
You might want to keep a math journal about the things you are learning. When you write something down, that helps you remember it, even if you never look back at the journal. But if your mind goes blank and you think, “I know I studied that,” the journal gives you a quick way to review. Make it even easier to flip back through by writing the topic you are studying in the top margin of each page.
When you run into a new vocabulary word, draw a Frayer Model Chart and fill in all the sections. The Frayer Model provides a way to organize information about a new vocabulary word or math concept.
And if you read something that’s particularly helpful, you may want to turn to the back page of your journal and start a quick-reference section.
Always Ask Why!
Find a fellow-learner to encourage you on your journey. Bouncing ideas off a friend is a great way to learn. You might want to join the parents and teachers who are learning math together at the Living Math Forum.
And here is the most important piece of advice I can offer. Your slogan must be the one used by the Chinese teachers Liping Ma interviewed: “Know how, and also know why.”
Always ask why the rules you learn in math work. Don’t stop asking until you find someone who can explain it in a way that makes sense to you. When you struggle with a concept and conquer it, it will make you free. You don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.
Know how, and also know why.
This post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.