The Truth About Math

Don’t let math intimidate you! Homeschooling has the clear advantage, trust me. This post outlines the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty truth about math instruction; what it was, what it is, what it should be!

First, what math instruction was….

Before the 20th century people didn’t care much about mathematics.

Beyond basic figuring most folks never gave it much thought.

Math instruction was very different back then. Most school masters couldn’t “cipher” for themselves.   Students did nothing more than copy and memorize rules. No logical, gradual introduction, no practice problems. Some students learned how to figure for the merchant trade, but few pursued higher math.

Then some rare men changed all of that. One of them was Dr. Joseph Ray, a schoolmaster who not only loved math, but loved teaching math to children.  He not only presented rules and theories to be memorized, but offered practice problems and examples of application. The books he wrote in the 1830’s made learning math logical and interesting. These texts were popular for almost a hundred years, selling 250,000 copies between the years 1903 and 1913 alone!

Regular folk still failed to see the use of math except for common trading, but times were changing. The years during which Ray’s arithmetics were sold were years of amazing invention and innovation. As technology increased, so did demand for those who could do higher math. Eventually books were published for teaching scientists and engineers.

Then two movements changed the way we look at arithmetic.

The first was the Progressive Education Movement.

Folks like John Dewey were in charge of this one. Western society was becoming more secular, even humanistic. Instead of relying on the strength of individuality, social engineers looked at children in groups and manipulated them like commodities on the stock market. Education was about manufacturing, not about learning.

Common sense approaches such as Ray’s Arithmetic were forced out, and in their place were books that were “modern” and treated children as mere calculating machines (one of Dr. Ray’s fears).

The second movement was the Space Race.

This began when the Russians leaped ahead by launching Sputnik in 1957. It wasn’t just about space, it was about the threat of communism. Folks believed our destiny was tied to our ability to compete in a technological age. The entire American education system was overhauled. The new curriculum put math center-stage and anyone who couldn’t measure up was left in the shadows.

Next, what math instruction is

The pace has only picked up since the 1950’s, but it seems as though we are falling farther and farther behind.

It is almost as if we have gone back to the time in our history when arithmetic was considered irrelevant. Our children are drilled and tested more than ever, but they know less than previous generations.

Survey of 23 industrialized countries ranks United States at 21 for numeracy, just in front of Italy and Spain…The main problem identified by the data…was with younger American workers, who lagged in nearly every category.

(According to The Daily Mail. You can also read this article for an American take on the subject.)

Graduates these days lack basic arithmetic skills, or what is referred to in the quote above as “numeracy.”

A numerate individual has the confidence and awareness to know when and how to apply quantitative and spatial understandings at home, at school, at work or in the community.

(Alberta Education)

We’re turning out rocket scientists who can’t tie their own shoes.

Finally, what math instruction should be

It should be logical.

There should be a gradual progression that makes sense and is easy to follow without a lot of jargon attached. None of this fuzziness, forget the complicated explanations that make children feel lost.

It should stimulate the imagination.

Math is not just a subject in school. Our days are precisely 24 hours, each one divided by 60 minutes which are divided by 60 seconds. Even our heart beats point to rhythmic order.  Some have said that we exist in a hologram built out of numerical order.

(If you have a few moments, watch this video and be amazed!)

It should have personal value.

“Story problems” are not enough. Children need to be immersed in the huge laboratory called life so they can find out how delicious fractions are when they bake a cake or how exhilarating algebra is when they are flying around on a roller coaster.

It should be short and sweet and leave time for natural exploration.

An hour a day of actual operational math is more than enough, and even less at younger ages. My ten-year-old does about 20 minutes, my seven-year-old less than that.

It should start later rather than earlier.

Numbers are not concrete, they are abstract. Small children have not run around in this world long enough to have a grasp of what that means. They need time playing with cups in the bathtub, watching the arc as they swing back and forth, building with legos, estimating the exact time to mash the brakes on their bicycle, engaging in language and reasoning.

I cannot do this idea the justice Denise Gaskins has in her delayed arithmetic series.

Here is an excerpt:

It’s counter-intuitive, but true: Our children will do better in math if we delay teaching them formal arithmetic skills. In the early years, we need to focus on conversation and reasoning — talking to them about numbers, bugs, patterns, cooking, shapes, dinosaurs, logic, science, gardening, knights, princesses, and whatever else they are interested in.

Gaskin refers to a math teacher who tested his theory of delayed math instruction by the name of L. P. Benezet. You can read an article about his findings here.

I have found this to be so very true with my own children. Delaying formal math has not hurt them, it has helped them. The ones who started later moved forward faster and stayed interested longer than those who began early and learned to hate the whole process.

Today the ones who struggled early-on are handling businesses, coding websites for colleges, and keeping out of debt via careful budgeting.

Professor Ray had it right. Children who find math logical, interesting, and life-enhancing have no trouble learning it. When done right, homeschooling does not put children behind, it gives them a head start.

If you have a testimony or a question, please take time to share. This is one area where we could all use a bit of encouragement!

16 thoughts on “The Truth About Math

  1. Thank you, Sherry! Your posts are always helpful. I was wondering if you or anyone else reading your posts has found a quality math handbook of some kind?? I teach my children grammar using a handbook that we constantly refer to each year (as opposed to using graded books that repeat the lessons in different ways each year) and I would like to do the same for math. I like Rays Arithmetic, but find it doesn’t quite fit me.

  2. Simplycharlottemason.com has a math dvd and guidebook showing how to teach math in a Charlotte Mason style, using Ray’s, Strayer Upton, and other resources. You can use the method to supplement or tweak a curriculum.

    • Good question, Diana. I have found that it all depends the student. My ten-year-old loves, loves math, so keeping her back would be like torture. My seven-year-old is quite articulate for her age, but math brings out the worst in her, so instead of doing formal math I let her sit and play with Legos.

      My daughter who is 24 now and does marvelously with numbers didn’t really understand them until she was in her late teens, while my 18yo put herself through the Ray’s and then tackled algebra on her own at 14. I have a son who was ready for algebra at 12 with scant instruction before that (not even through sixth grade math).

      Another daughter who absolutely hated math as a kid was making over $30,000 a year at 19, running a side business to boot.

      Having an understanding of the basic framework of elementary math instruction really helps you feel more confident, I think.

  3. Do you have any suggestions for fun Public Domain books that I could download as read-alouds to my children (ages 9, 7, 6, 4, 2, and newborn) about mathematical concepts (counting, logic, shapes, more or less, bigger than, etc.)? We live in Asia and I don’t have access to a library.

  4. Thank you! Very helpful post which encourages me to relax a bit;)
    We use Rod and Staff after trying many different programs and I find it to be just good old fashioned math.
    I couldn’t agree more with your thinking. My question to you and your readers is, do you worry about end of the year evaluations/tests/ progress reports? Our state requires this and always makes me feel like I need to be on my toes so much!! I find myself being more concerned with that then being able to just TEACH and let them learn at thier pace.
    Any input would be wonderful!!!
    Blessings
    Mrs.O

    • This is a great question, Mrs. O, and one that I was sure would come up. We all have something like that in our lives. Maybe others can chime in here, but where I live (Colorado) we have the evaluation option, which for us means we only need to show academic progress.

      I always think these testings are unfair; kids in public schools who test lower than the other students are simply declared “special needs” and their scores aren’t counted anymore…

      I hope others will tell us their experience in different states.

      • Thank you so much for responding Sherry. I hope other’s chime in too!

        I Agree on the “special needs” label just from a test score.
        Blessings
        Mrs.O

        • I think we all think are tempted to think too much about where our children compare with others (ie test scores, abilities at what age, etc), but the Bible reminds us not to fear men (or care too much what they think). On the other hand, sometimes I have found that pushing my children a little beyond what I think they can handle has actually surprised me that they CAN handle it and the pushing was very needed to get them out of their comfort zone! The bottom conclusion I have come to is the need to pray daily…is this a subject/topic I need to relax on until they are ready? Or is this a subject/topic I need to give them some nudging? Relying on Him daily as Sherry has reminded us often! : ) Hope this is encouraging. Prov. 3:5-6

          • LaRae, this is so right on! Thanks for bringing this very important point to our attention. I have often thought this myself. Even as a adults we sometimes need to be forced into something before we find we can actually do more than we think we can. Often it’s not that we can’t, but that we won’t.

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