FAQ: Lifelong Learning for Parents

“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.

FAQ-Lifelong-Learning

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.

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.

Frayer-Model

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.


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.

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.

Let’s Play Math FAQs: Introduction

I’ll let you in on a secret about teaching: there is no place in the world where it rolls along smoothly without problems. Only in articles and books can that happen.

—Dr. Ruth Beechick
You Can Teach Your Child Successfully

Learning math is an adventure into the unknown. The ideas we adults take for granted are a wild, unexplored country to our children. Like any traveler in a strange land, they will stumble over rocky places and meet with unexpected detours.

Whenever I visit a parenting forum, I feel compassion for the families who are struggling with math. No other school subject elicits such depths of frustration and despair:

  • I’ve explained until I’m hoarse, and she still doesn’t get it. Help!! I want to pull my hair out.
  • My child is not a mathy person at all. Now he’s convinced that he’s “dumb.”
  • She says she can’t do it. She says she hates math. She says she can’t think. She hits her head and pounds her fists in frustration. I am so tired of fighting over math Every. Single. Day.
  • The problem is not him … It’s me. I am a failure at math.
  • I am sooooo struggling to teach my daughter math. Please, does anybody else deal with this? I will try anything!

Let's Play Math FAQs: Introduction

Yes, There IS Hope!

Solving the problems of math education is not easy. Situations have built up over years, so they will take time to resolve.

But children are resilient, so improvement may not take as long as you fear.

No matter how much your family has struggled, there is hope. If children can get over the “I’m no good at math” mental block, they can learn all of elementary arithmetic in one school year of determined study.

Does that seem unbelievable? Consider Daniel Greenberg’s experience:

Math as a Second Language

If math feels like a strange and dangerous wilderness to your children, you may need an experienced guide to lead you through the rough spots. For arithmetic, try Herb Gross’s Math as a Second Language webpages:

For upper-level math topics, explore Murray Bourne’s Interactive Mathematics pages or take a look at Kalid Azad’s Better Explained site:

About the Let’s Play Math FAQ Series

The questions in this blog post series will be based on actual forum discussions, though I always change the details, removing anything that might identify the families involved.

We’ll look at a variety of struggles with math, such as:

  • Lifelong Learning for Parents
  • Primary Level Problems
  • Middle Grade Mishaps
  • The Agonies of Algebra
  • Gaps and Standardized Testing

The questions will cover a wide range of common frustrations that resonate with anyone who has tried to explain an abstract idea to a confused child. Some questions apply specifically to homeschool math, yet non-homeschooling families can use many of the resources I recommend to supplement their children’s schoolwork or to keep skills sharp over the summer.

Special Cases

In my FAQ post answers, I will assume you are working with children of normal intelligence, facing the mental strengths and weaknesses that are common to us all. The human brain is not designed for working with abstraction, so most people find math difficult.

But some face additional hardship because their minds are unable to process numbers and related concepts. If you suspect one or more of your children may struggle with a learning disability, please have them tested and get advice from someone who can help you learn to deal with their special circumstances.

Auditory or vision problems, undiagnosed food allergies, and a family crisis or other emotional strain may also affect a child’s concentration. Sometimes, the best way to help your children learn math is to let it go and deal with other issues first.

To be continued . . .


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.

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.

Roadmap to Mathematics: 3rd Grade

[Feature photo (above) by Phil Roeder. (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)]

roadmap3

A frequently-asked question on homeschooling forums is, “Are my children working at grade level? What do they need to know?”

The Council of the Great City Schools has published a handy 6-page pdf summary of third grade math concepts, with suggestions for how parents can support their children’s learning:

Whether you are a radical unschooler or passionately devoted to your textbook — or, like me, somewhere in between — you can help your children toward these grade-level goals by encouraging them to view mathematics as mental play. Don’t think of the standards as a “to do” list, but as your guide to an adventure of exploration. The key to learning math is to see it the mathematician’s way, as a game of playing with ideas.

The following are excerpts from the roadmap document (along with a few extra tips) and links to related posts from the past eight years of playing with math on this blog…

Continue reading Roadmap to Mathematics: 3rd Grade

Roadmap to Mathematics: 2nd Grade

[Feature photo (above) by Loren Kerns. (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)]

roadmap2

A frequently-asked question on homeschooling forums is, “Are my children working at grade level? What do they need to know?”

The Council of the Great City Schools has published a handy 6-page pdf summary of second grade math concepts, with suggestions for how parents can support their children’s learning:

Whether you are a radical unschooler or passionately devoted to your textbook — or, like me, somewhere in between — you can help your children toward these grade-level goals by encouraging them to view mathematics as mental play. Don’t think of the standards as a “to do” list, but as your guide to an adventure of exploration. The key to learning math is to see it the mathematician’s way, as a game of playing with ideas.

The following are excerpts from the roadmap document (along with a couple of extra tips) and links to related posts from the past eight years of playing with math on this blog…

Continue reading Roadmap to Mathematics: 2nd Grade

Roadmap to Mathematics: 1st Grade

[Feature photo (above) by woodleywonderworks. (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)]

roadmap1

A frequently-asked question on homeschooling forums is, “Are my children working at grade level? What do they need to know?”

The Council of the Great City Schools has published a handy 6-page pdf summary of first grade math concepts, with suggestions for how parents can support their children’s learning:

Whether you are a radical unschooler or passionately devoted to your textbook — or, like me, somewhere in between — you can help your children toward these grade-level goals by encouraging them to view mathematics as mental play. Don’t think of the standards as a “to do” list, but as your guide to an adventure of exploration. The key to learning math is to see it the mathematician’s way, as a game of playing with ideas.

The following are excerpts from the roadmap document, along with links to related posts from the past eight years of playing with math on this blog…

Continue reading Roadmap to Mathematics: 1st Grade

Roadmap to Mathematics: Kindergarten

[Feature photo (above) by MIKI Yoshihito. (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)]

RoadmapK

A frequently-asked question on homeschooling forums is, “Are my children working at grade level? What do they need to know?”

The Council of the Great City Schools has published a handy 6-page pdf summary of kindergarten math concepts, with suggestions for how parents can support their children’s learning:

Whether you are a radical unschooler or passionately devoted to your textbook — or, like me, somewhere in between — you can help your children toward these grade-level goals by encouraging them to view mathematics as mental play. Don’t think of the standards as a “to do” list, but as your guide to an adventure of exploration. The key to learning math is to see it the mathematician’s way, as a game of playing with ideas.

The following are excerpts from the roadmap document, along with links to related posts from the past eight years of playing with math on this blog…

Continue reading Roadmap to Mathematics: Kindergarten