Education is a hot topic currently, coinciding with the fact that we have an over-achieving president (of whom I’m proud). I am convinced he’s secretly Asian American despite an outer bearing that’s African American in appearance.
It’s also a topic of huge interest to me now that Hiro Protagonist is officially a first-grader.
Recently I’ve had to come to grips (somewhat reluctantly) that my son has a strong sense of numeracy. When he was about 3 years old, he asked me what odd and even numbers were. I showed him with my tented fingers how ‘odd’ means one left over from a double, and ‘even’ means a double. He had a period at four years old where he was enchanted with the idea of ‘googolplex.’ One time he asked me to draw out all the zeroes in googolplex, and we got pretty far before I had to quit and say it was time to go to bed. Then, just to make my life harder, I showed him what googolplex was written as an exponent.
It’s ironic to me that he has such a thirst for information about numbers and their behavior, because HB and I are completely lopsidedly verbal. I have to run to Google U. to brush up on basic math concepts.
And this goes completely against my slacker/free range mom instincts, which is to work on my documentary and update my Facebook profile in desultory fashion while hoping that my son will keep himself pleasantly occupied by reading a nice thick Harry Potter novel. Of course, as the stars would have it, he is a visual, numbers, scientific-y minded, high-maintenance, socratic-method kind of person who learns best through incessant dialogue, and while he probably could read a great deal more to himself independently, he seems to lack interest in doing so. Because he’d rather ask me. (I say this all with great love.)
Which is how I end up teaching my son patchwork math. He can add/subtract three and four digit numbers. He has a glancing acquaintance with the multiplication tables. He understands that to divide is the inside-out version of multiplying. When he asked me what positive and negative numbers were, I explained to him how to add and subtract them on a number line. (How on earth had he even heard of positive and negative numbers? I kept thinking the whole time. Whose fault is this? Grandparents?)
It’s haphazard and completely fitful, all because I do it in response to his questions. Are you kidding? I’d have him reciting Shakespearean sonnets before spouting arithmetic if I were the kind of parent eager to have my child show off at parties. And so far, he can recite zero sonnets. Truly, he prods me for information with his curiosity and desire to know.
I explained all this haphazard math learning to his wonderful first grade teacher, hoping that she could more consistently fill in the areas I’d skipped over. So far, she has him on this interesting regimen of computer-administered problem sets. I think this is so teachers can accelerate the lesson plans for your kid if they seem ready for it. (What was once called “tracking” now seems to be called “differentiation.”) This could be a very good thing, as the first few weeks of school he was adding varieties of numbers to arrive at 8, whereas over the summer to keep him busy and out of my hair, as well as to challenge him, I had him adding two, three, and four digit numbers together.
Of course, it having occurred to my otherwise unmotivated mind that my son might require more stimulation, math-wise, I looked into the math wars and got an eyeful. Previously in a conversation with some of my favorite super-smart mom-friends, I’d heard about Singapore math. Given that I have two cousins who grew up in Singapore before coming to the U.S. to finish high school and college, I was keenly interested in what it entailed and how they experienced it. (One of my Singaporean cousins married and returned to live and raise her 4 daughters in the Singapore private schools there, where they’re all very soon making their way back to the U.S. to go to college.)
It seems to be very old school standard algorithm math of the kind I learned when I was a kid, but with key parts updated and made fresh with use of manipulatives (blocks or other chits you move around). It seems a sensible way to teach and learn math; I have no objections to it and when you look at the ’90s math wars and realize what fuzzy math had been about, Singapore math seems refreshingly no-nonsense, clear, and direct.
Here’s an example of what the math wars fought against: fuzzy math by way of the lattice and cluster problem solving of what seem to be very basic multiplication and division problems.
Having watched that graphic illustration of making a straightforward process desperately circuitous, I could see the appeal of Singapore math.
But at the same time, I think there are cultural reasons why Singapore often scores well in country-to-country comparisons of national math exam performance: this is a culture in which teaching to the test is a given and there’s a lengthy school day (perhaps even elongated school year) that also includes heavily tutored children who do lots of drills.
Sadly, or perhaps truthfully, much ease at math is the result of constant drill work. Pages of worksheets. And much success at national math exams is the function of coached-to-the-nth-degree schoolkids. (Ironically, my cousin still living in Singapore withdrew her kids from the uptight, stressful Singaporean school and put them in the more laid-back expat school. Presumably the curriculum was much the same, just the pressure to perform a little less intense.)
Of course the U.S. lags behind. We spend far more time and energy putting our kids into sports programs than into afterschool math classes. Parents feel a lack of basic numeracy and pass this insecurity to their children; they aren’t able to help with homework and/or hiring a tutor is beyond them, both conceptually and financially.
Now, before anyone thinks my old-school “Singapore math-esque” absorption of math was anything close to the idealized version that super-motivated kids today experience, I have to explain that I went to a hippie elementary school.
Recently I had occasion to tell my mother (decades safely after the fact) about some of the antics I was subjected to at this hippie elementary school. (It was a private lab school connected to a teaching college, a fact I only learned with chagrin long after my own college years, when I’d proudly touted myself as a public school kid. Oops.) Because it was a lab school, we were subjected to every possible scholastic fashion and trippy-dippy trend to blow through Dodge City. How hippie was this school? We had music class with Mrs. B who taught us how to play ukelele and sing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in our incredibly high-pitched schoolkid voices (at a frequncy really only audible to dogs).
We listened to Marlo Thomas sing “Free to Be You and Me.” We sidled down the hallways unsure of what to make of severely mentally and physically disabled children who were mainstreamed with us in the same school. I think we were supposed to grow more empathetic but instead we simply developed ridiculous ideas, such as the notion that mental retardation could be contagious through physical contact.
Best of all, my second grade teacher in my mixed-grade classroom, Mr. O, thought it would be a good idea if we learned responsibility by rearing a cocker spaniel puppy in a nest of shredded toilet paper in the freestanding ceramic bathtub tucked in a corner of our classroom. In reality I think we learned the fine art of shirking whenever the puppy pooped where it wasn’t supposed to.
Now do you understand why Gen Xers marvel that they survived their childhoods intact? Can you imagine the lawsuits, the complaints to the school board and the teacher’s college that ran the lab school, over the exposure of schoolkids to freshly excreted dog poop if it happened today? It’s a miracle we all didn’t have ringworm. Or fleas.
Mr. O didn’t mess around. He taught us the multiplication tables by allowing the first correct responder in the class to plunge an unwashed arm deep into a three-foot high red plastic fire hydrant filled with Cocoa Puffs and Magic Charms breakfast cereal. The more sickly sweet and filling-sticking, the better. As someone who regularly plunged her forearm into the Cap’n Crunch Crunch Berry cereal box at home to cherry-pick, so to speak, the “berries” from the chaff, I learned my times tables right-quick.
When I told my mother these stories recently, she was appalled. I was tempted to ask her what they paid for my tuition.
“Did you know that’s what we did in class?” I asked her.
“No,” she choked out.
Might I point out to you lest you miss the point that I knew my times tables backwards and forwards AND I WAS ONLY IN SECOND GRADE? I regularly beat the third and fourth graders to the crunch (so to speak) in my mixed-grade classroom. Very possibly they were crippled by a bad heartworm infection caught from the dog. So you see, there was some hard-core, old-school math happening there under all the high fructose corn syrup.
Which leaves me a bit blithe about educational trends. Singapore math? (I’ll stick to my serviceable standard multiplication algorithm or whatever I myself can decipher. Because fact is, as a parent of an elementary-school aged child, it’s like going to first through fifth grade all over again yourself.) Mandarin Chinese? Time honored method of sink-or-swim immersion on summer vacation when we visit family in Taiwan or Shanghai. I survived some of the most ridiculous educational trends of my childhood and still went back for more in grad school, and somehow I think my son will too. Except maybe the grad school part. There can be too much of a good thing.