FAQ: Struggling with Arithmetic

My son can’t stand long division or fractions. We had a lesson on geometry, and he enjoyed that — especially the 3-D shapes. If we can just get past the basics, then we’ll have time for the things he finds interesting. But one workbook page takes so long, and I’m sick of the drama. Should we keep pushing through?

Those upper-elementary arithmetic topics are important. Foundational concepts. Your son needs to master them.

Eventually.

But the daily slog through page after page of workbook arithmetic can wear anyone down.

Many children find it easier to focus on math when it’s built into a game.

Take a look at Colleen King’s Math Playground website. Or try one of the ideas on John Golden’s Math Hombre Games blog page.

Or sometimes a story helps, like my Cookie Factory Guide to Long Division.

Math Textbook Tips

Games are great for practicing math your child has already learned. But for introducing new concepts, you’ll probably want to follow your textbook.

Still, even with textbook math, there are ways to make the journey less tedious:

  • Most children do not need to do every problem on a workbook page, or every page in a section. There is a lot of extra review built into any math program.
     
  • You don’t have to finish a section before you work whatever comes after it. Use sticky bookmarks to keep track of your position in two or three chapters at a time. Do a little bit of the mundane arithmetic practice, and then balance that with some of the more interesting topics your son enjoys.
     
  • As much as possible, do math out loud with a whiteboard for scratch work. Somehow, working with colorful markers makes arithmetic more bearable.
     
  • Set a timer for math, and make the time short enough that he feels the end is in sight. I suggest no more than thirty minutes a day for now. And whenever the timer rings, stop immediately — even if you are in the middle of a problem.
     

The Timer Can Be a Life-Saver

Doing math in short sessions helped us avoid the emotional melt-downs my daughter used to have.

Thinking is hard work, and if I asked for too much, she would crash.

Because I sat with her and worked together every problem, I knew what she understood and when we could skip a problem. Or sometimes even jump several pages. Which meant that, even with short lessons, we still got through our book on time.

Arithmetic Is Like Vegetables

But as I said before, textbooks include a whole lot of repetition.

Too much repetition deadens the brain.

So we also took long breaks from our textbook program. Entire school-year-long breaks, just playing with math. Letting “enrichment” activities be our whole curriculum.

As healthy as vegetables are, you would never limit your son to eating just lima beans and corn.

Similarly, be sure to feed him a varied math diet.

For example, you can follow his interest in geometry beyond the standard school topics.

Explore tessellations, Escher art, and impossible shapes such as the Penrose triangle.

Building Lego scenes is a practical application of 3-D geometry. He might even want to try stop motion animation.

Talk about how math works in real life. Ponder the choices on John Stevens’s “Would You Rather?” blog or try some of the challenges at Andrew Stadel’s Estimation 180 website. Many of these require three-dimensional reasoning.

How is the Penrose triangle illusion created? Why can’t we build one in the real world?

A Blogging Challenge

This is my second contribution to the blogging challenge #MTBoSBlaugust.

I’m aiming for at least one post each week. A simple, modest goal. But if I manage it, that will be four times the pace I’ve set in recent months.

Two posts down…

CREDITS: Frustrated Child photo by by Pixabay on Pexels.com. Penrose Lego by Erik Johansson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Homework Hands photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash.

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis 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.

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Math Debate: Adding Fractions

Cover image by Thor/ geishaboy500 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve been working on my next Playful Math Singles book, based on the popular Things to Do with a Hundred Chart post.

My hundred chart list began many years ago as seven ideas for playing with numbers. Over the years, it grew to its current 30+ activities.

Now, in preparing the new book, my list has become a monster. I’ve collected almost 70 ways to play with numbers, shapes, and logic from preschool to middle school. Just yesterday I added activities for fraction and decimal multiplication, and also tips for naming complex fractions. Wow!

Gonna have to edit that cover file…

In the “Advanced Patterns” chapter, I have a section on math debates. The point of a math debate isn’t that one answer is “right” while the other is “wrong.” You can choose either side of the question — the important thing is how well you support your argument.

Here’s activity #69 in the current book draft.

Have a Math Debate: Adding Fractions

When you add fractions, you face a problem that most people never consider. Namely, you have to decide exactly what you are talking about.

For instance, what is one-tenth plus one-tenth?

1/10 of 100

Well, you might say that:

\frac{1}{10}  of one hundred chart
+ \frac{1}{10}  of the same chart
= \frac{2}{10}  of that hundred chart

But, you might also say that:

\frac{1}{10}  of one chart
+ \frac{1}{10}  of another chart
= \frac{2}{20}  of the pair of charts

That is, you started off counting on two independent charts. But when you put them together, you ended up with a double chart. Two hundred squares in all. Which made each row in the final set worth \frac{1}{20}  of the whole pair of charts.

So what happens if you see this question on a math test:

\frac{1}{10}  + \frac{1}{10}  = ?

If you write the answer “\frac{2}{20}”, you know the teacher will mark it wrong.

Is that fair? Why, or why not?


CREDITS: Feature photo (above) by Thor/geishaboy500 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “One is one … or is it?” video by Christopher Danielson via TED-Ed. This math debate was suggested by Marilyn Burns’s blog post Can 1/3 + 1/3 = 2/6? It seemed so!

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

How to Succeed in Math: Answer-Getting vs. Problem-Solving

You want your child to succeed in math because it opens so many doors in the future.

But kids have a short-term perspective. They don’t really care about the future. They care about getting through tonight’s homework and moving on to something more interesting.

So how can you help your child learn math?

When kids face a difficult math problem, their attitude can make all the difference. Not so much their “I hate homework!” attitude, but their mathematical worldview.

Does your child see math as answer-getting? Or as problem-solving?

Answer-getting asks “What is the answer?”, decides whether it is right, and then goes on to the next question.

Problem-solving asks “Why do you say that?” and listens for the explanation.

Problem-solving is not really interested in “right” or “wrong”—it cares more about “makes sense” or “needs justification.”

Homeschool Memories

In our quarter-century-plus of homeschooling, my children and I worked our way through a lot of math problems. But often, we didn’t bother to take the calculation all the way to the end.

Why didn’t I care whether my kids found the answer?

Because the thing that intrigued me about math was the web of interrelated ideas we discovered along the way:

  • How can we recognize this type of problem?
  • What other problems are related to it, and how can they help us understand this one? Or can this problem help us figure out those others?
  • What could we do if we had never seen a problem like this one before? How would we reason it out?
  • Why does the formula work? Where did it come from, and how is it related to basic principles?
  • What is the easiest or most efficient way to manipulative the numbers? Does this help us see more of the patterns and connections within our number system?
  • Is there another way to approach the problem? How many different ways can we think of? Which way do we like best, and why?

What Do You think?

How did you learn math? Did your school experience focus on answer-getting or problem-solving?

How can we help our children learn to think their way through math problems?

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your opinions in the Comments section below.


CREDITS: “Maths” photo (top) by Robert Couse-Baker. “Math Phobia” photo by Jimmie. Both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Phil Daro video by SERP Media (the Strategic Education Research Partnership) via Vimeo.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Mindset for Learning Math

Playing with a new image editor, I came across this Winston Churchill quote. What a great description of how it feels to learn math!

If you have a student who struggles with math or is suffering from a loss of enthusiasm, check out Jo Boaler’s free online course on developing a mathematical mindset:

Or explore some of the playful activity ideas for all ages in her Week of Inspirational Math.


howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


New Book: Word Problems from Literature

The posts on my Let’s Play Math blog are, for the most part, first-draft material. Of course, I’ve proofread each post — many times! because I’m a perfectionist that way, and yet I still miss typos :-/ — but these articles haven’t gotten the sort of feedback that polishes a book manuscript.

Well, now I’m taking some of the best of my old blog posts, expanding them with a few new games or activities, and giving them that book-quality polish. Let me introduce my newest series, the Playful Math Singles.

Under Construction …

The Playful Math Singles from Tabletop Academy Press will be short, topical books featuring clear explanations and ready-to-play activities.

I’m hoping to finish up two or three of these this year. Watch for them at your favorite online bookstore.

The first one is done …

Word Problems from Literature: An Introduction to Bar Model Diagrams

You can help prevent math anxiety by giving your children the mental tools they need to conquer the toughest story problems.

Young children expect to look at a word problem and instantly see the answer. But as they get older, their textbook math problems also grow in difficulty, so this solution-by-intuitive-leap becomes impossible.

Too often the frustrated child concludes, “I’m just not good at math.”

But with guided practice, any student can learn to master word problems.

Word Problems from Literature features math puzzles for elementary and middle school students from classic books such as Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Hobbit.

For each puzzle, I demonstrate step by step how to use the problem-solving tool of bar model diagrams, a type of pictorial algebra. For children who are used to playing with Legos or other blocks — or with computer games like Minecraft — this approach reveals the underlying structure of a math word problem. Students can make sense of how each quantity in the story relates to the others and see a path to the solution.

And when you finish the puzzles in this book, I’ll show you how to create your own word problems from literature, based in your children’s favorite story worlds.

Free Online Preview

Buy now at your favorite online bookstore.

If you’re using these word problems with your children, consider buying them the paperback companion Word Problems from Literature Student Workbook.

… and People Like It!

A screen shot from this past weekend:

“I found this method really clarified for me what was going on visually and conceptually. Particularly when it came to more complex questions, for which I would normally write out an equation, I felt that thinking about what was going on with the bars actually made more sense … This is a wonderful book for those who want to support their children in finding better ways to work on word problems.”

—Miranda Jubb, Amazon customer reviewer


howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Beauty in Math: A Fable

Have you ever wondered what mathematicians mean when they talk about a “beautiful” math proof?

“Beauty in mathematics is seeing the truth without effort.”

George Pólya

“There’s something striking about the economy of the counselor’s construction. He drew a single line, and that totally changed one’s vision of the geometry involved.

“Very often, there’s a simple introduction of something that’s not logically within the framework of the question — and it can be very simple — and it utterly changes your view of what the question really is about.”

Barry Mazur
The Moral of the Scale Fable


CREDITS: Castle photo (top) by Rachel Davis via Unsplash. “A Mathematical Fable” via YouTube. Story told by Barry Mazur. Animation by Pete McPartlan. Video by Brady Haran for Numberphile.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.