# Helping a Struggling Maths Student: What’s the point?

If you have been reading my blog for very long you will know I have one strong maths student, one average and one weak.  I stopped using all curriculum with the twins to attempt to rectify this.  I can now with a certain amount of confidence say that I have three potentially strong maths students.  Am I saying that because I am now maths teacher extraordinaire? No of course not.  Actually, I still consider myself a fairly weak maths teacher.  Fortunately I am not teaching anymore, so it is immaterial whether I am good or not.

Not using a curriculum to learn maths has been the single most sensible thing I have done in our little homeschool.  I’m not renowned for my sense.  Anyone who knows me well would testify to that, and yet….

You see, the girls and I are learning together.  I am no longer their teacher (phew!), more their maths buddy.  It is funny to me, because I don’t teach any other subject either.  History…we learn together.  Science….we learn together.  Same for geography.  Everything in fact, except for maths.  Maths, I believed, needed to be taught, to be drilled and to be repeated 30 times a day until the student was so saturated with the concepts that they couldn’t possibly forget them.  I am not saying I was wrong in this assumption, but I am saying that there are other, different means of learning maths.

I have been reading The Elephant in the classroom:

This was recommended to me by Lucinda (thanks Lucinda!)  In it the author compares the drill and repetition of maths in the classroom as the equivalent of a music student only learning how to write copious amounts of musical notation, yet never being allowed to play this music and experience its true beauty.  And so it is with maths.  We give our students much mathematical notation to repeat over and over again, but we never allow them to use it to experience its beauty.

My son, a strong maths student, naturally experiences the beauty of maths, as do I.   My girls need a bit more help.  And this is the point.  This summer they have been playing with mathematical notation on mathematical instruments and they are just beginning to see its potential.  They are starting to see that maths is primarily a study of patterns rather than numbers.  Patterns that are so important and mesmerising, they are seen all around us in nature, present in almost every facet of living.

For L10, who readily proclaims herself useless at maths, it has been prudent to introduce her to the idea that maths is not about numbers; that the numbers are just labels, there to aid us not flummox us. Next week I will be sharing the activities we did with place value.  Activities which have revolutionised the way the girls view numbers.

Living maths, for want of a better term, is just that.  It is maths that is alive, meaningful and best of all simple.  No I don’t have one strong maths student anymore, I have three.  They just don’t know it yet!

Lucinda left a comment that I thought might be worth adding to this post for anyone interested:

I’ve been doing Jo Boaler’s free Stanford course this summer. It runs until 27 September and has lots of short videos (mostly Jo speaking) you can just dip into. There’s lots about Carol Dweck’s mindset work too, which was new to me.
I know you have a zillion things going on, but I thought I’d share in case any of your other readers are interested. The course is here: https://class.stanford.edu/courses/Education/EDUC115N/How_to_Learn_Math/about

1. I’m so pleased you got as much from the book as I did!
I’ve been doing Jo Boaler’s free Stanford course this summer. It runs until 27 September and has lots of short videos (mostly Jo speaking) you can just dip into. There’s lots about Carol Dweck’s mindset work too, which was new to me.
I know you have a zillion things going on, but I thought I’d share in case any of your other readers are interested. The course is here: https://class.stanford.edu/courses/Education/EDUC115N/How_to_Learn_Math/about

1. I haven’t actually finished the book yet. It is so good, and the only opportunity I get for reading is in the bath, so I read in 10 minute increments and spend the rest of the next day cogitating over everything she says. It is a really thought provoking book, and her research is really thorough. Thank you so much for the recommendation.

1. That’s probably the best way to read it. When I was a therapist I always used to tell clients, “Most therapy happens between sessions”. Our minds are very powerful!

2. PS The US title of The Elephant In The Classroom is “What’s Math Got To Do With It?”

3. Lil says:

I could do with some advice in teaching a weak maths student next to a string maths student!

My son is nearly 9 and a strong maths student (once he gets past his initial goto for anything new of ‘I can’t do this’!). Meanwhile his sister, who is nearly 2 years younger, has just joined our homeschool and I have just discovered is not ‘very good at maths’ as her school reports have claimed. She understands the basic concepts, and can rattle them off at will, but seems unable to put them into practice. Having read your post, I’m feeling a light bulb clicking on – the school saw her ability to understand (or repeat word for word) the teacher’s explanation, as ‘very good at maths’, but in reality she has only been taught to copy notations, not play the music!

My big question now – how to teach the two very different students side by side?!

1. If you pop over to Lucinda’s blog she is currently teaching two children with about the same age gap and seems to be doing it very successfully. The link is in the post. I’m teaching my twins together who have very different mathematical minds but it is going well so far. I think a non curriculum approach is easier for multi age learning as well as different styles.
In the end though, it is a lot of trial and error until you work out what works best for the personalities in your own school.

4. So glad that you’re finding your groove with maths. I am also finding that the best way to motivate a child (at least in my case) is to learn alongside him/her so the subject matter or the experience of the teacher/parent really does not matter. A shared learning experience is more fun for everyone.

1. We’re certainly getting there. I’m not sure she’ll ever LOVE maths but she is learning not to hate it so much. Maybe in the future….

5. I went through the same process. I will have to check out that book.

1. It is well worth getting. It has so much wisdom, and is based on some really good research she took years to carry out.

6. Myra says:

What a sense of accomplishment for the children (and for you). Learning along side them is so much for fun for them. JUst the other day, the granddaughters and I had fun trying to re-create a flower in the Georgia O’Keeffe style and we had giggles and a few tears but we all love the results and they are hung with pride in our front hallway.

Myra, from Winnipeg where we are sweltering in a late summer heat wave and are, foolishly, going on a picnic in this heat today

1. I do hope the picnic went well and you didn’t all pass out from the heat Myra!!

7. I am seriously interested in that book. I hated Math at school. So much so that I grew to fear it. I have often thought of starting at the last point I still had the plot together and discovering its true allure for myself. This post has certainly inspired me to look into it. Thanks Claire!

1. It’s a book worth getting, although I am only about half way through. Every paragraph is so meaty it requires thought to process it. Brilliant book!

8. I think it must be an English thing, because in my head I keep correcting your use of “maths” into “math,” must be something different in how you spell it over there.

That’s the beauty of homeschooling we can change our plans to make it work for our kids.

1. I think maths is short for mathematics which is pleural so we chuck an s at the end! I’d always wondered the same about math!

1. Ha ha ha ha, I hadn’t thought about the reverse being true for silently correcting 🙂

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