Math and…Happiness?

I was a good student all through my school years, but as it got more complicated, I struggled with math. As I embarked on my first year of college, applying for a degree in the business school, I found that these high level math requirements became the gatekeeper of whether I would achieve that goal. Years later however, I found myself defying the prediction that my failure to excel in those high level math classes would prevent me from achieving my goals. Clearly, the math I did learn and do well at provided me with enough of the tools I needed for my life choices.

The ways in which math is progressively introduced, in my opinion, will have an affect on student success in the future. When my son was in fifth grade I found myself overcome with that familiar inadequate feeling when he brought home a math assignment and needed my help.  I ended up having to look things up for him online in order to help him.  That was frustrating.

No doubt many of you have experienced something similar. I want to lend some perspective on the subject of math, highlighting one of my favorite educational philosophers, Nel Noddings from her book, Happiness and Education.

Noddings has analyzed the past few decades’ call for more math and science for all students.  She acknowledges that not all students have an aptitude for advanced math and science classes and that by insisting that these subjects be a gatekeeper for school success or college entry ignores all of the other ways that students can succeed. Noddings has been a professor of Education at Stanford University, who also taught mathematics to elementary and high school students for 17 years. She calls for providing all students with the necessary math skills for succeeding in daily life, but avoiding pushing excessive, higher-skill math classes to the masses, preserving that task for those that have a true knack for those subjects or wish to enter a field requiring them.

I am saying all of this because I know that many of you are worrying about your child falling behind in some way because of the transitions occurring in schools. I want to help you relax about things like math by giving this perspective and below I am offering ways you can encourage math concepts and thinking in meaningful and relevant ways. Math should not be a miserable task.

Home learning provides a perfect environment for integrating skills. We can alleviate a possible aversion to a long page of math problems when students are offered the purpose of such exercises. When we pose math in real life circumstances, kids can put their learning into action. They will also see that many math endeavors require the use of social and language skills as well.  

Here are some activities:

  • Give your 10+-year-old child a budget for the week’s groceries; give them the grocery list to find the products online. Have your child add them up and provide an estimate for the total cost and whether it fits the budget. Encourage your child to look for less expensive brands to make the budget work and check the home inventory to make sure that you are not doubling up on things you already have.
  • Older and younger children can work together to do some baking. Measuring ingredients correctly is critical for baking. Learning tricks like packing the brown sugar or using water displacement to measure the butter are helpful for getting accurate amounts.  If you are missing an item, like yeast or baking soda, have them look up a substitute, thereby learning what purpose those ingredients serve in making the recipe work.
  • Prepare items for a garage sale. Younger children can sort like items together and gauge how much to price them for. Older children can prepare to give change, putting into action their understanding of base 10. Encourage them to practice counting change back to the customer.

It is important that for children under the age of 8 to have the opportunity to experience math in concrete and tactile ways. I highly recommend the Cuisenaire Rods system of math, which provides ways to build on the concepts of addition, multiplication and fractions in a manner that illustrates the connections between these concepts. Paper and pencil and online activities are good, but young children also need to manipulate materials with their hands in order to properly build the brain for more complex function. You can learn more about Cuisenaire Rods at where they also provide workbooks to use with the rods.

I learned about DreamBox,, online math program from a recent NPR, Guy Raz, How I Built This podcast.  It sounds like a great online tool to use at home.

A substantial analysis of how we are teaching our children was long overdue.  Like it or not, this pandemic is forcing this exploration. I am certain a lot of good will come out of it. In the meantime, I wish you luck with this school year. Do not hesitate to email me with questions.


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