We’ve been back at it for the week now – school that is – and I’m into my umpteenth year teaching high school mathematics. Some of my friends of the same age ask how and why I do it: fronting-up to a high school with bunches of 13-18 year olds who may, or may not, be interested in what I have to teach?
It’s absolutely true that I could be retired by now, sitting back by the pool and doing my quilting. But there’s two reasons I keep teaching even though I’ve hit the big ‘6-Oh’ (60 years). I love it and it keeps me young. Young people keep you young. (I know my grandchildren could do that too, but they are too much like hard work and I wouldn’t want my children to take me for granted as a babysitter!). There's a third reason also: the money is nice and I intend living a long life where I’ll need all the money I can accumulate so I can have a comfortable retirement – one day.
I realise there’s so many issues I could write about in those opening paragraphs but I’ll concentrate on just one: mathematics and why I enjoy it, and why I would urge you to encourage your children to study it.
You see maths isn’t just about numbers – though they’re obviously very important. Understanding maths help us solve problems, it helps us understand how things work and how different bits and pieces fit together. It gives structure; it teaches us how to organise, sort, make linkages; how relationships work; and also how to deal with facts and evidence.
One of the things I have found over the years is that many kids come into the classroom misunderstanding what maths is all about. Before I even say “Good morning class, I’m Grumpy Old Grandma”, many young people have this blank look in their eyes because they’re either frightened of it or think it’s going to be boring. Why? Believe it or not, it’s not because of their primary school experiences but because of their parents.
As with almost everything, parents attitudes and skills towards education are vital to the progress of a young person and nowhere is this more the case than maths (and, I’ll put in a good word for my science teacher colleagues also).
So many parents had bad experiences with maths classes over the years that they’ve passed this lack of interest or bad karma on to their children. Don’t do it! Please! You are not doing them any favours.
If your high school student comes to you and says they need help with their maths assignment, please don’t put down this wonderful subject by saying “I’ve never been good at maths” or “I haven’t done maths in 20 years”.
You might not think it, but the message they’re getting from you when you say this is that it’s either not worth knowing or it’s too difficult.
Instead, if you really can’t help them, here’s some advice:
- Find someone who can – such as their teacher! We’re always ready to help a student who wants and need it – at least I hope we are!
- Or get a tutor. I always find older high school students (such as Year 12) who want some money, or university students, are terrific especially if you also get a uni student who is doing teaching!
- Alternatively, make it a joint issue and ask your child to teach you. That way, he or she has to learn it well enough to explain it, and you also get to learn something new which is always good for the grey matter. It’s a really good way of doing something together where the child feels empowered. But, if you don’t understand their explanation, then tell them so they get it absolutely right.
- Let them struggle. It is better for them and the teacher to know what it is they don’t know or understand, then for you to do it anyway. Your child doesn’t learn from you doing their homework!
- Focus on the process of solving the problem rather than the answer itself. That’s better for them anyway, but it’s good for your child to learn how to solve the problem and deal with challenges.
If your children are much younger, such as pre-schoolers or just new-schoolers, start talking to them about numbers now, or do exercises with them where they’re dealing in relationships or linkages or different amounts, you’re helping them.
For example, for pre-schoolers, you can do things as simple as:
- Build a tower (with building blocks or Lego) and tell them to copy what you’ve done.
- Lay out a number of things (anything) and point out the numbers (“one, two, three, four, five” etc).
- Teach them numbers by laying out a hopscotch grid and telling them to go to different numbers (if you don’t know what hopscotch is, please ask your parents ... or maybe grandparents???).
- When reading a bedtime story, get them to spot patterns in illustrations, such as stripes or diamonds.
- The kitchen is a great place if you’ve got a little cook. For example, if the cup holds 250ml and you need 680ml, how many cups do you need?
- Take a look at bedtimemath.org. Every day they have a different, topical maths poser. It might not always be relevant to Australia, but it gives you some ideas on things to do.
- Mix maths into daily life. If he or she walks or rides with you, get them to work out their walking or cycling pace by asking them how long it takes and how far it is (don’t tell them this either). Or, if they really want a new iPad, how much do they need to earn and save between now and then to get it.
These are just some simple ideas but it helps get the thinking right.