It is really important to me that my kids feel confident when it comes to math. I know I can’t make them love math. I wish I could. At the very least, I want them to feel comfortable tackling difficult problems. I don’t want them to ever think, “I can’t do this” before they’ve ever even tried.
I feel like confidence with math extends to so many other areas of life. A person who confronts a difficult problem and opens their minds to find a solution, can tackle any difficult situation life throws at them. Math builds grit. It can teach kids to strive and persevere when faced with a challenge.
However, I feel like the way math is typically taught does not promote these skills. A child is given a lesson on how to solve one type of problem, and then they practice that type of problem over and over (and over) again. The next week, they learn how to solve another type of problem and repeat.
This type of math is not exactly challenging, as they are typically practicing a given technique. However, it is exhausting. Even when a child knows how to do it, they have zero desire. Who wants to practice 20 long division problems back to back? Not me, and I like math.
I ran into this challenge with my oldest child. When he was in kindergarten, we did not follow a curriculum. We just talked about math naturally as it pertained to our life, counting the number of pushes on the swing, identifying shapes, looking for patterns, and counting during hide-and-seek. During this time, he loved math.
However, when he was in first grade, I purchased a math curriculum. It was a very nice, well thought-out curriculum, but it required about 15 minutes of work five days a week. It very quickly became the worst part of our day. Those 15 minutes would turn into an hour, because he would resist doing them.
We struggled over those problems. It wasn’t that he wasn’t able to do them. He had the mental capacity. It was that he wanted to be playing. He wasn’t ready to sit still for that long. He thought they were boring, so he would get upset. His uncooperative state of mind would lead him to make mistakes, then he would get even more upset. We stuck to the curriculum for about 2 to 3 weeks, despite daily resistance.
One day we both reached our limit. He was frustrated. I was frustrated. Finally, I said, “Fine. You don’t have to do it.” Then I took his paper, crumpled it up, and threw it in the recycle bin. You would have thought I committed an act of treason. For me to betray him by ruining his paper (the one he hated) was unforgivable. Eventually, I took the math sheet out of the bin and smoothed it out so he would calm down, but that was the last day I gave him a math worksheet.
In that moment when our homeschool was falling apart, I decided we were done with a math curriculum. I decided I would just look at the problems for that week, write down a few on a piece of paper, and that would be all he did. It was a manageable, non-overwhelming number, like 8 to 10 problems and he only had to do it once a week.
The next year, when he was in second grade, I purchased several math curricula (from Saxon Math, Singapore Math, Mammoth Math, McGuffy Press, and Kumon). I spent the summer looking through the books, writing down problems on index cards and sorting them into piles of topics, such as Geometry, Word Problems, and Patterns.
Since there are 36 weeks of school, I looked through each set of stacks and wrote my own 36 problems for each category. For example, I took my stack of Geometry problems and used them to write a Geometry problem for each week. The problems got progressively harder from week to week. I tried to include as many different types of problems as possible. Also, I tried to include the entire range of difficulty I had seen while looking at all the different curricula.
Once I had done this for all 10 categories, I created a 10 problem worksheet for each week of the 36 weeks of school. Each problem was of a different type. All in all, once my son completed all 36 weeks of school, he had been exposed to 360 problems covering 10 different areas of math.
When he was in second grade, that was all he did. Ten problems per week and no more. They started off easy, but got more challenging as the year went on. He frequently would only be able to do 2 or 3 of the ten problems on his own, then I would help him and give him hints for the rest.
By doing math this way, he was not overwhelmed. He still said for a long time after that that he didn’t like math, but he stopped complaining about it. Over time, I found him to be more open to tackling unfamiliar problems. He at least attempts each one before asking me for help. My later children that never did a traditional curriculum still like math and I love how creative they are in their solution techniques.
One downfall of this minimalist approach is that while I feel like it is great for critical thinking, it can lead kids to be slow at math facts. There is just not the repetition of simple calculations necessary to become quick with basic operations like addition and multiplication.
This can be remedied in two ways. One is by playing games, such as Clumsy Thief or those in the Facts that Stick series by Kate Snow. The other is by periodically having the child do basic math fact worksheets. These can also be found in the Kate Snow series. I also have a free printable multiplication practice sheets set on my blog.
Personally, I have my kids do a little of both. We play math games when we can fit it into our schedule. When it’s been a week or two since they have practiced math facts and I feel like they need some practice, I give them a worksheet. So far this casual approach to math facts has been working for our family.
My oldest son that had the math curriculum meltdown is now going into 5th grade. He is advanced enough in math that this summer I will be creating my problems using various 6th grade curricula. I have not yet decided if I will do this one more time next summer for 7th grade. Starting in 7th or 8th grade I’m planning to transition him to an online curriculum such as Mr. D. Math.
For now, my hand-selected Minimalist Math curriculum seems to be working for all my kids. Each year when they are tested, their math scores in every category are always at grade level or higher. I have not had any of my children test below average on any measure (knock on wood).
I attribute their success at testing to their willingness to tackle unfamiliar problems. Even if they don’t know how to do a problem, their minds do not shut down as my son’s was doing when I had him using a traditional curriculum. They stay calm, try to figure out what the problem is asking, and do their best to take a stab at a solution. I could not ask for more.