Making math education add up to something enjoyable

Reva researches possible ways to help her son improve his math skills.

Photo: RapidEye/iStockphoto

Math was always a struggle for me.

In the summer between grades four and five, I actually forgot how to do long division. Fractions — and my dad’s nightly attempts to teach me — regularly left me in tears and that was often before we had even started. (A recent psychological study found that math anxiety is the same as physical pain — it’s not the numbers themselves but the anticipation of encountering them that triggers the painful responses)

Therefore, I had always planned to call in help for any math homework — beyond the very basics — for my school-at-home next year.

But when my son recently started saying he hated math and it was the lowest grade on his report card, I felt that the pressure was really on to find a way to break this negative cycle.

I was also completely surprised by both his comments and grade. This is a kid who often requests that I ask him addition and subtraction problems to pass the time, who loves puzzles and building and almost nightly counts his savings. If anyone is set up to both enjoy and succeed at math, I would have thought it was him.

So what was going on and what could I do to change things?

Further investigation seemed to suggest (well, for the moment) that the problem has more to do with the way the math is being taught (they use “fun,” but at times confusing, gimmicks such as Angry Bird math) rather than a problem with the actual concepts.

Our personal incident reflects the broader discussion on the best way to teach math, as well as the larger anxiety of how the current approaches are failing (in recent global rankings, Canada slipped from seventh place to 10th place.)

The question seems to be whether children should do more rote learning and practice or, as the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education is looking to do, aim for a deeper understanding of the underlying concept. Or ideally, find a way to do both.

While not every child learns the same way, math is a cumulative subject and part of the anxiety around math seems to be moving on without an understanding of the basics — which then makes each year successively more difficult.

The good news is that there has never been more options available for parents, students and educators looking to address this situation.

There’s the internationally acclaimed JUMP Math program which, although developed in Toronto, is ironically not yet available in Toronto Public Schools.

The JUMP approach breaks a math problem down into its component parts and then builds it back up incrementally. The results are impressive. Within three years of using JUMP, Lambeth, a high needs and underperforming area in the UK, went from being six points behind the national average to two points ahead.

The catch for our situation is that it would have to be parent taught. Although the website assures me that no prior mathematical ability is required to teach JUMP math, I’d still prefer to have a third party directly involved.

Fortunately, online options are growing. I’m a huge fan of the work being done by the Khan Academy which now has a library of more than 4,000 videos on everything from math, to physics, history and finance. The Khan Academy is one of the most exciting education initiatives around at the moment. It allows anyone to learn as much as they want, when they want, at their own pace — and it’s all free.

But for the moment, I think Seth is a little young to have this be the only source of his math education.

On the other end of the technology spectrum, is the return of the abacus. Modeled on programs from India and China, after-school abacus programs are increasingly available across Canada. Advocates say that the approach also follows a back-to-basics approach (but with the benefit of kids directly interacting with the beads and concepts) and that this enables students to become confident in the fundamentals — making broader math concepts much easier to understand.

The Kumon math program is similarly focused on the fundamentals and is based on repetition, daily practice and timed assignments with the goal that each concept is fully understood before a new one is introduced. The structure of Kumon sounds appealing — as does not teaching the math myself and the availability of centres around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

But I’m still exploring the options, including a tutor who follows the JUMP program as well as online math programs that are designed for homeschoolers.

It’s exciting to see the number of different resources and approaches available to our kids, and it seems a long ways away from the struggles at my kitchen table years ago.

Have you tried any of these programs? How did you find them? Do you have other resources or suggestions to recommend?