More about math, from Joyce Fetteroll

Maya and I had a math discussion the other day.  She told me she’s ‘bad’ at math.  When gently pressed, I discovered that this means she can’t multiply numbers in her head as fast as some of her friends.   Friends who think it’s weird that she doesn’t know the times tables by rote.    We don’t learn math in terms of workbooks and times tables.

When Maya makes the statement that she isn’t as good at math as her friends I try not to preach about how much math she does know (can you say “counterproductive”?) even though I am silently grating my teeth and wishing ill on whoever is lording their knowledge of rote multiplication over her.

Maya is great at math.  Superb at logical thinking.  But in her mind, as in most of ours, “Math” is something done in a workbook or a textbook and that kind of math (which one might argue is not math at all, in any kind of usable, practical sense) is not something she knows a lot about.   When we spoke about it the other day, she admitted that she does know a lot about money, time, estimating both of those with great accuracy, rounding, fractions (but only when used in a practical setting like cooking) and basic percentages, but in her mind THAT’S NOT MATH.  (!)

And I get it.   I need to remind myself almost daily that ‘math’ is everywhere and that my kids use it all the time, though in an often undefined way.   (As in, we don’t say, “Hey, we just estimated how much time it will take for us to get from point A to point B.  We just did Math!”)

Because of this need for reassurance, I sometimes read Joyce Fetteroll’s website.  Specifically the part where she answers questions people have sent her regarding math.   The link is here, but I’m reprinting one of my favorite sections in full as well:

There’s no reason for my daughter to avoid learning because she’s never been forced to do it. To her learning is something you do to find out more about what you’re interested in and to become better at it. It’s not something someone makes you do because they tell you you need it.

She will avoid learning in ways that aren’t natural for her or don’t suit her needs. Some kids like workbooks. That doesn’t make them better learners than those kids who don’t. It just means they learn differently. She will avoid learning anything that isn’t relevant to what she wants to do or is interested in. Which makes parents nervous for two reasons:

1) What if she never gets interested? It’s possible she won’t on her own. But it’s my job/pleasure to run as much of the world in front of her as possible. The broader her experiences, the more likely something will connect to something else in her life and be relevant. (Though I can’t depend on when.) Everything is connected to everything else. And everything relevant is inherently interesting.

But it’s also possible she won’t get interested in something “important”. Math? Writing? Chemistry? If she has absolutely no interest in it, then it’s unlikely she’ll be drawn to a profession that needs it to an extent greater than she can pick up by living. Though she won’t leave the house without being able to figure out sales tax or write a letter to a friend or know that baking powder is important in cookies because she’ll have used those. She’ll have enough to get by. But it’s possible she’ll need higher math than she has. Or better writing skills. Or an entire chemistry course. Well, if it’s just chemistry standing in her way, wouldn’t it make sense for her to go down to the community college and take it rather than deciding on a different career just because of one course? And if that’s too much trouble, how much did she want that career anyway?

2) And the second reason it makes parents nervous is supposedly there are things kids need to learn that they won’t need until college. And supposedly it takes 12 years to learn them.

But does it? Does it take 12 years to learn math? Or does it take 12 years for schools to force feed a child math (and writing and history, et al) by the methods they need to use to force feed 30 kids at a time? Methods which are also limited to ways that can result in outcomes that can be tested to demonstrate progress. Also limited only to methods that must be progressive along a specific track so the next year’s teacher can pick up where the previous teacher left off. Does math need taught that way? Or do schools need to teach math that way to satisfy the needs of schools as assembly lines?

In a way, school math is rather like learning to spell thousands of words and decline hundreds of verbs of a foreign language without hearing that foreign language spoken. The rationale being that once all the parts are learned, the whole can be built from that. But how many kids survive the rote process? How many kids conclude not before long that the language is useless because the parts have no meaning? My daughter is hearing the language and using it, without formally declining the verbs and learning the spellings. Even if she’d never been exposed to reading it (but already had the decoding skills from reading English) how long would it take her to learn to read that foreign language after having learned it from using it?

Once my daughter has a thorough understanding of what it means to do division, she won’t need umpty gajillion problems to practice. Once she has a thorough understanding of problems with a range of potential solutions (programming and robotics come right to mind), and has encountered and understood powers and negative numbers she won’t need years of practice to grasp algebra.

My job is to make sure there are reasons in my daughter’s environment to need the skills and see them being used. (Just as I talked to her well before she could talk.) Though she finds a lot of uses for the skills on her own, given the freedom to do so. There’s no reason for her to avoid writing or reading or math (until the workbooks) on her own because she’s never been forced to do them. The hard part is waiting forher timescale. I need to wait until these things are internally important to her. I can’t worry, well, she’s 8 now and should be doing … because natural learning doesn’t have anything to do with calendars and time schedules. It has to do with needs.

If she has a goal in mind, she won’t have anything except natural barriers between her and it. She won’t have what someone thinks she needs to get there and someone else’s way she needs to get it standing in her way. If she decides to become a vet, she’ll know what colleges require for her to get there. If her desire is strong enough, she’ll learn what she needs to learn because she wants what the learning can get for her. (Desire is an incredible motivator.) And most importantly she’ll have better resources to achieve it than sitting down with a textbook and slogging through it. (Though that’s an option too. Fortunately she won’t have the history of slogging through textbooks putting up a psychological barrier for her.) She’ll have a good foundation of understanding math concepts and will see it and other math being used (and use it herself) as she explores what it takes to be a vet: taking care of animals, working in a vet office or a horse stable.

That sound you just heard?   That was my sigh of relief.   Thanks Joyce.

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