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Learning to Love Math

[This article was originally published in about 1994 in Home Education Magazine. In 2005 it was updated and posted on Mormon Momma. I’m moving it here because I am asked about my math philosophy — and in particular why I hate Saxon math — in a homeschooling context so often.]

Math Background

Learning to Love MathWhen I was nearly four years old, my father received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and since that time he has been a professor of mathematics at Brigham Young University. On June 30th, 1995, he retired, was granted emeritus status for the maximum three years, and then continued to teach — without remuneration — until 2005.

In October of 2005, he was given the Honorary Alumni Award at BYU’s homecoming festivities in honor of his contribution to the university. He may have retired his position, but not his love of numbers and formulae and sharing it with students.

All my life I enjoyed math and performed well in my classes; I guess it’s in my blood. Most of my girlfriends hated it or, at least, thought I was nuts to more than tolerate the subject. For years I alternated between feeling weird and feeling smart. (If you care to categorize me, I now prefer the latter!)

Just months after my eldest child, Jessica, was born I happened upon an article in Parents magazine titled “Math Stinks!” by Mary Rubin Stuart. It explained this dichotomy and it began a whole new way of thinking about raising my daughter (which has subsequently become raising four daughters and two sons).

Although young girls generally score better on math tests than do boys, as they get closer to adolescence they tend to fall farther and farther behind. This discomfort, disinterest, or just plain difficulty (technically called “math anxiety,” and also seen in boys) is often reinforced by parents (especially mothers) making comments to their children (especially daughters) such as, “Well, I never liked math either,” or “I never was any good at math,” or “Well, we Smiths just don’t seem to have mathematical minds.”

Statements like these imply that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for a child not to excel in math. They also seem to hint toward feelings of, “Well, I’m no good at math and I’ve done just fine without it. You will too.”

Never have I met a parent who would say to a child, “Well, I never liked reading either,” or “I was never any good at thinking myself,” or even, “Well, we Smiths just don’t seem to have historical minds.” Why is it acceptable to promote math illiteracy to our kids when we would never promote other illiteracy?

Elementary Teachers and Math Culture

In the early 1990’s, my sister, Nora Hess, received her master’s degree in math education with a thesis titled Elementary School Teachers, Scientists, and the Two Cultures of Mathematics. It clearly supported what much other research has shown: that elementary school teachers — who introduce most children to math — are often those least equipped to teach the subject. They are people who have never enjoyed math and don’t understand it. Many tend to see math as a magical set of rules to be memorized and regurgitated, rather than a set of tools for problem solving.

My husband, who has PhD in electrical engineering, and I have often discussed encouraging our children (especially our daughters) in math and science. We have seen this as a way to leave as many future options open as possible. We have noticed how many educational and career opportunities are unavailable to those who cannot or will not take advanced mathematical courses. It appears that many of the “traditional female” fields are simply the subset that do not require advanced math.

Girls and Math Avoidance

My theory about math avoidance was backed up handily when I discovered an article by Lucy Sells titled “Mathematics A Critical Filter.” Ms. Sells’ research showed some amazing facts.

In an interview of freshmen entering UC Berkeley, 57% of males had taken four yours of high school math, but a mere 8% of females had taken as much. Without those four years of math, 43% of the males and a whopping 92% of the females could not qualify for many entry-level courses. This disqualified them from ten out of the twelve colleges at the university, and 22 out of 44 majors. Half of their potential career choices were eliminated by their past math avoidance!

Math is, in fact, the “critical filter” allowing some to pass and holding others back.

Math and Homeschooling Parents

If you, as a parent, have an aversion to math, don’t let it rub off on your children. Do something about it.

  1. Go to the library. Search the internet. Read books about teaching math, math anxiety, and math avoidance.
  2. Ask for advice from people who actually like math and use it all the time. Ask mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and statisticians for the best ways to learn math.
  3. Don’t readily take mathematical advice from those whose degrees, lives, and jobs do not require the use of higher-level math, and especially not from those who dislike it or have made college or career choices in order to avoid it.
  4. Some universities even give workshops that re-teach math to adults who believe that they just cannot do it. You can change your attitude and your skill level for the better and greatly influence your children in the process!

There are methods of teaching mathematics that encourage a love and interest in math, and those which tend to kill the joy. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this:

Please avoid drill-to- kill, memorize-to-mummify, repetition-without-reason textbooks. Look for courses that teach concepts, principles, guided discovery, problem solving, investigation, alternate solutions, and projects that use real math.

What can you do to bring out a love of math in your kids?

  • It’s OK to count on your fingers, or pebbles or candies or pennies or rods or sticks or blocks, even for advanced students. Use hands-on stuff and always have a manipulative to fall back on. Mess with real stuff first; experiment, discover. The algorithm comes last.
  • Critical thinking exercises are a wonderful way to get kids out of the textbook what-is-the-magic-formula mode. It helps them to see that in real life (just as in real math) there are many ways to approach a problem. Math is creative!
  • Play lots of games that will increase mathematical understanding. Try guessing games like hiding a penny in one of ten numbered bags, and figuring the most efficient way to find it. Look for Set, Quarto, Tangrams, and other pattern recognition games. Play Monopoly and Chess. Do puzzles and brainteasers. These are not just gussied up rote drill and memorization activities. Comprehension is the key.
  • Remember that real math is in real life, not on a page in a text. Never do a math problem without a basis in the real world. Figure out how far the car travels in a second. Decide how to divide two bananas fairly between 5 people. Find how many cans of paint are needed to paint three rooms. Every operation applies to something.
  • Discuss great math concepts for fun. Why don’t things disappear when you keep dividing them in half? What does dividing fractions do? Why does pi go on forever? How tall would a stack of a million dollars be? What really happens when you divide by zero? Why do two negative numbers multiply together to form a positive? Talk about the cool stuff!

All these things are appropriate for elementary school and above. Don’t believe that the great math is only for those at an advanced level. If it were, few of us would retain interest long enough to find out about it.

If you jump into math with enthusiasm, your children can come out winners. Thanks for the head start, Dad!

{ 26 comments… add one }

  • Monkey2 October 9, 2013, 2:44 pm

    This is the best math rundown I’ve seen. ever. Thank you! I’m going to start trying to implement these ideas with my boys (and girls, if I ever have them)!

  • Ayla October 9, 2013, 8:38 pm

    Excellent suggestions! I’m a home schooling mom with a liberal arts Master’s so I had ONE college math class. Just ONE in 8 years of college and it barely touched on algebra. I’ve always been told I’m bad at math and I’ve passed that on to my oldest son, 10, who thinks he stinks at math. I struggle with teaching him things because honestly *I* hate math. I’m trying so hard to work myself up about math. The golden ration, which we recently studied, has helped. That was fun math! I’m always on the look out for math that doesn’t feel like “math.” I want to break our family cycle of math hatred :)
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  • Alison Moore Smith October 9, 2013, 10:39 pm

    Monkey2, thanks much.

    Ayla, I commend you for stopping the hate. 😉 I think you meant the golden ratio? Yes, there is lots of really cool math. More important, perhaps, is what you can do with it, the problems you can solve with it.

    I’ll be posting my list of favorite math programs. Some of those will be pretty much just for fun — although educational — so look for that soon.

    Thanks for reading and responding.
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  • Tami October 10, 2013, 8:21 pm

    Love it! One of my favorite things about homeschooling from the start is getting to learn math all over again. I get it this time I am so much smarter than I thought I was! 😉

  • Kamra October 14, 2013, 5:24 am

    Would love a list of your favorite math programs or games. Great article

  • Alison Moore Smith October 14, 2013, 12:06 pm

    Kamra, thanks. I will get that post finished ASAP. :)
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  • Katie October 14, 2013, 1:20 pm

    I am amazed by the words and thoughts some people put into their kids’ heads.

    My MIL and her relatives who live with her seem to be sick most of the time. I think I know why now. She rode with us in the car last week and sat by my 6 year old. He complained about his leg and she said “Oh my, look at this, he has a terrible rash. He must be allergic to something.” I looked back and saw a mild rash. Had I been the one answering him first, I would have said “Yeah, you’ll be fine. It’ll go away. We’ll put some cream on it later.”

    During the same car ride, my husband coughed and she asked if he was still sick, and he said something about his cough lingering, and she said “You must have that terrible sickness we had last year.” Uh, not so much.

    Neither one of those are terribly grievous comments, but when you add them up, multiply by 12-16 hours a day, every day, I can see why they are sick so often! I may take it to the other extreme. For example, I sneezed nearly all day every day for weeks and used entire rolls of toilet paper at high school before I gave in and tried Claritin. But my kids and I rarely get sick.

    My point is that I agree with you, that the things we say about math are just as destructive. I’m an engineer, so I am sure I have never said anything to my kids about not liking math, and all 3 of them are fantastic at it.

    I did have to disagree with this:
    “Ask for advice from people who actually like math and use it all the time. Ask mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and statisticians for the best ways to learn math.”

    My answer would be “Um, I don’t know, it came pretty easily for me most of the time.” But I would tell people that I worked very hard, always doing all my homework, going in before or after school as needed, etc. Also, as a civil engineer, the most math I ever use is fairly simple geometry (areas of triangles, circles, etc.).

    The problem I run into now is explaining to my kids WHY math works the way it does. My son was having to do problems like “Julie has 5/6 pound of clay. She gives 1/4 of it to her sister. She uses the rest to make 7 ornaments. How many pounds of clay are in each ornament?” I was able to visually draw it out for my son using rectangles (color 5/6 of a rectangle horizontally; then color 1/4 vertically and see what overlaps, etc.), and then showing him that we could do (5/6) x (3/4) x (1/7), but it was very hard for me to explain why I could do that multiplication to get the answer. Perhaps I had too much rote math and never learned it, or it’s been too long since I learned the explanations and I only remember how to do it, but not why.

    So, you never said why you don’t like Saxon math. Is it all rote or something? When I researched math 5-10 years ago, I’d always heard it was the best. The other one that was always a front runner was Singapore Math.

  • Alison Moore Smith October 14, 2013, 1:47 pm

    Katie, thanks for your input!’

    I think I understand what you are saying. I am acquainted with a man who, I would guess, has Münchausen syndrome by proxy. Everyone — literally everyone — in his family has one or more serious disorders/diseases/conditions that he discovered and he sees them in everyone else as well. His wife also thinks he has a problem with needing to diagnose everyone else and be the hero for discovering the problem.

    I did have to disagree with this:
    “Ask for advice from people who actually like math and use it all the time. Ask mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and statisticians for the best ways to learn math.”

    My answer would be “Um, I don’t know, it came pretty easily for me most of the time.”

    I think you have to infer the corollary of that item to understand what I mean. I’m not suggesting that all people who enjoy and use math will necessarily be able to teach it. But it certainly won’t be people who hate math and can’t do it.

    So when I get elementary ed teachers, homeschool moms, or anyone else who admits they don’t like math and don’t understand it, they are NOT going to be my source for math advice.

    A woman I know teaches workshops on how to make money and take charge of your finances — and she’s been struggling financially for years. Every time I see one of her ads drop in my Facebook feed, my eyebrows go up. She isn’t a financial expert. At all. It’s the blind leading the blind.

    I think that goes for math (and other subjects) as well.

    Also, as a civil engineer, the most math I ever use is fairly simple geometry (areas of triangles, circles, etc.).

    Don’t you find you use algebra all the time IRL? (Not sure what you mean by “most” — volume or difficulty? I don’t really see geometry as being “higher” than algebra, just different.) But my husband (who’s an electrical engineer) uses upper level math all the time.

    The problem I run into now is explaining to my kids WHY math works the way it does.

    And there’s the rub. If they don’t understand the why, they aren’t doing much more than memorizing algorithms, right?

    …showing him that we could do (5/6) x (3/4) x (1/7), but it was very hard for me to explain why I could do that multiplication to get the answer.

    We start out using multiplication as “of.” In other words, take 3/4 of 5/6. It’s an easy transition. For example, you have 6 cookies and you want 1/2 of them. 1/2 of 6. 1/2 *6 is the mathematical symbol.

    So, you never said why you don’t like Saxon math. Is it all rote or something?

    Drill to kill. Memorize algorithms. It pretty much breaks all my math rules. :)

    When I researched math 5-10 years ago, I’d always heard it was the best.

    I did, too. But from whom did you hear this? I heard it almost exclusively from homeschool moms who did not like math and didn’t want to teach it. The main selling point was that it was “easy” to teach and the teacher didn’t have to get involved in the teaching. :/

    The other one that was always a front runner was Singapore Math.

    I haven’t used Singapore myself, but I have heard — from people who have a similar math philosophy to mine — that it is quite good.
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  • Marnee October 18, 2013, 8:09 pm

    This was so helpful to me as I’m getting started home schooling. What do you use for elementary kids?

  • Kimi Martin October 20, 2013, 5:56 am

    I have been homeschooling for all of two months now and am using Saxon. What I have read about Saxon, and have experienced, is that it requires parental involvement. My third-grader is enjoying it. After counting by sevens she gets multiplication and can now rattle them off with pride. Granted, I skip some of the drills because she doesn’t need them. That is what is nice about homeschooling, taking a curriculum and then reworking it to fit your child. I think Saxon is a great place to start.

  • Alison Moore Smith October 20, 2013, 11:35 am

    Hi, Kimi. Welcome and glad to know you like what you are doing.

    The first thing to note about Saxon is that it was initially published for grades 4 and up. Much later, the publishers added the K-3 curriculum which (in the words of Cathy Duffy) “are extremely different from the rest of their program.”

    The K-3 materials seememostly to mimic some better materials already available (Making Math Meaningful, etc.). They added gobs of (expensive) manipulative kits, too. But my impression was that it was almost an afterthought — because manipulatives were deemed cool and a good income stream — rather than having manipulation actually being an integral part of the program. And lots of them have duplicate functionality. (Read that: aren’t necessary.) This may have changed since I looked over the materials when they were new, but I have heard nothing to suggest that.

    That said, if you like Saxon and think you have done a solid analysis of how it works and what the results will be, that’s great. My concern is that people very often go with Saxon because they heard from other people how great it was — even though those who made the claims don’t have much math expertise and usually don’t even like math. That’s not a sound recommendation. For us, Saxon doesn’t produce the math results we want, so we have looked elsewhere.
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  • Alison Moore Smith October 20, 2013, 11:39 am

    Marnee, I’m planning a wedding, but promise that I’ll get that post written as soon as I can!
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  • FrimFrim October 20, 2013, 8:22 pm

    Kimi, it’s good to find what you like, but remember you’ve only been homeschooling for two months. You probably don’t really know yet what will work long-term yet. 😀

  • Meagan October 21, 2013, 10:01 am

    Thank you so much for such an informative post! I loved math as a little girl, and then by 8th grade I started to lose interest, as I felt my teacher didn’t seem interested himself, and both of my parents never had to do Algebra, so I felt pretty stuck. Once I hit college, I found a love for it again!
    Do you have recommendations as to what math programs TO use? I bought a Kumon book for my 5 year old to start, she loves math and seems to be catching on quickly. I’ve heard of Saxon as well. I would love advice as to which programs you would recommend!!
    Thank you!

  • Alison Moore Smith October 21, 2013, 10:03 am

    Meagan, I’m working on a post with that info. Also planning a wedding, so life is a bit hectic. :) That post is high on my list of things to blog. Stick around!

    Also, you could post in this forum with questions. I’d love to get some conversations going in the new forums!

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  • kellyu October 23, 2013, 5:17 pm

    I’m going to guess that about 80% of homeschoolers use Saxon and about 95% of those are terrible at math or haven’t done it for long. It is a pretty dry road to math memorization.

    That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

  • Lanette November 8, 2013, 10:14 am

    I use both Saxon and Singapore. I find them quite similar in that both teach a concept concretely and then move to the abstract. I find Saxon to be more thorough in that it has a lot more built-in practice, but I love the more complex story problems Singapore offers. I love math and math is my “thing.” I believe we develop strong math skills by using math — just as we become better readers by reading and learn a foreign language by using it. There is no substitute for knowing your basic math facts and understanding place value for a good foundation in math. Knowing these facts “ad nauseam” gives a child added confidence and “frees” up his brain to focus on more complicated skills later in his math career. Not only that but the same methods we use to manipulate arithmetic equations also apply to more complex algebraic equations. Many homeschoolers have used Saxon with much success, and I have seen many charter and private schools using it as well.

  • Lori November 30, 2013, 4:21 pm

    I love the suggestions in this article for using real math. I, too, would like to know what your favorite math programs are.
    I enjoy math, but can’t always remember how to do it so I am learning along with my kids…one of the perks of homeschooling.;)

  • annecj January 16, 2014, 9:09 am

    As to the point that ACT scores are going up, this is completely irrelevant. My daughter is in 11th grade, so she’s one of those kids taking the ACT, but has had NO CC math classes! At least in our school district, CC started with the younger grades and these kids were left in the old math system. So logically then, an improvement in ACT scores from Alpine School District, would only serve to prove that the old math program was working. (I’m not a huge fan of the old math program either, but that is what an improvement in ACT math scores would show.)

  • Alison Moore Smith January 16, 2014, 12:30 pm

    Hi annecj. Just wondering if you intended this comment to go on the new thread?

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  • Alison Moore Smith January 16, 2014, 5:18 pm

    annecj, since you confirmed by email that you intended that comment in the other thread, I reposted it there. :)
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  • amy February 21, 2014, 9:41 pm

    I really appreciate this article. I was homeschooled, but pretty much from the start I “wasn’t good at math”. I just couldn’t do flashcards, and wasn’t allowed to count on my fingers, etc. By ninth grade it was hopeless. My parents gave up, and I was allowed to finish out the next three years with consumer math, accounting and business math – all of which I did very well in. But now, I’m homeschooling a first grader. And in spite of being ahead of her work in reading, she can’t do the flashcards either. Panics at every speed drill. I don’t know what to do. What curriculums did you find the most helpful? ‘Cause, I’m thinking I will probably need some framework to help me help her learn this.

  • Natalie July 11, 2014, 11:38 am

    LOVE THIS ARTICLE! We’ve used Math-U-See and switched to Miquon (LOVE) and Khan Academy… Looking for upper elementary math curriculum! Can’t wait to read your suggestions & favorite fall-in-love-with-math sources!!

  • Sandra September 1, 2014, 4:06 pm

    I have read this article several times. The more I read it the more encouraged I am that I can change my attitude towards maths and be able to encourage someone else as well.
    Thank you so much!

  • Alison Moore Smith September 1, 2014, 7:43 pm

    Sandra, you made my day!
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  • Marie July 13, 2015, 10:21 pm

    This article really changed my opinion on math.

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