The Chair Is Not In the Plan

Hokaido

There’s a fantastic scene in the movie Contact – a surefire crowd-pleaser in any gifted/intense home, by the way – in which the protagonists are assembling an intergalactic travel portal from plans sent out by a much more advanced species. The device is simple, elegant, and beautiful to the eye – but when Jodie Foster comes to examine it, she finds that the design team has added a chair for the traveler’s comfort. Said chair is not, of course, in the plan, and it’s not surprising that when they do fire up the device, it shakes and smokes and shudders…until she pulls out the bolt, and the chair is removed, at which point it works beautifully; it turns out that seating was not really necessary anyway.

I started to feel, somewhere along the line this year, that structured math was the chair we had added to our otherwise beautiful homeschooling equation. Where every other subject we teach – from foreign language to coding to critical reading to world history to science – feels like an environment for exploration and mastery-based learning, structured math is off vibrating in the corner, stuffed with worksheets and Common Core lunacy. So we’re pulling out the bolt, and hoping for a more blissful ride to come.

The reality, we’ve come to realize, is that most structured math curricula have two core faults. First, they assign equal weight to everything, forcing a month of multiplying mixed numbers on us (because THAT’S a crucial math skill to have) while short-changing more important topics like problem-solving strategy development and statistical analysis and data interpretation. Everything’s granted the same stature, and there’s no way to hurry up the check-box skills and stretch out the more critical tasks, because assignments need completing on time. We clearly communicate to our children, through equal-weighting mathematical ‘units,’ that learning to convert tons to ounces or resolving improper fractions is just as important as algebraic problem-solving. It’s not.

Second, math is still focused on computation, in an era when computation is not a skill that is differentiated in the labor market. I’m not receiving any resumes that talk about an applicant’s skill in computation. What I am receiving are resumes that focus on the applicant’s skill in creative mathematical problem solving – a skill I’ve yet to see emphasized in a traditional math program.  All of this goes against what Conrad Wolfram said in his most recent TED Talk, too – the idea that we are falling further and further behind the standard of mathematical capability, simply because computation is easy to teach and easy to grade. Anything beyond computation – teaching actual mathematics – has historically been deemed too time-intensive and personal to be effectively performed in a traditional school setting. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but once again, we’re in danger of becoming the infamous drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight – not because his keys might be there, but because the light is better for looking. Is there another way we could pursue a math curriculum designed to emphasize creativity and problem solving while Wolfram’s vision matures?

“What if,” Kathy said to me, “we filtered down the topics to get rid of the computation focus, and then just moved along at the pace of their mastery?”

What if, indeed. Much of math, from grades three through seven, is just churning the same topics over and over again, tacking on a single decimal place to multiplication or adding in the area of one more shape as we go along. It’s not as if there’s an enormous gulf between one grade and the next; I’ve watched H and A tackle the exact same unit, at the exact same time, for the past few years. But we’re rushed from one topic to the next by the demands of the traditional academic calendar, and there’s no room whatsoever for taking a topic that interests them and allowing for a few extra days on it. Nor is there any freedom to dispense with blatantly goofy Common Core effluvia like this and this and this; my kids’ progression through nonsensical bullshit must be documented, worksheet page by worksheet page.

Not any more. While we’re on our way to a computer-based math (CBM) curriculum, we’re going with a combination of Thinkwell and Khan Academy, both of which encourage topic exploration and mastery-based learning rather than traditional-math rubrics handed down from Cold War educational philosophies. We’re going to work with them to sift grade-appropriate topics for meaningful mathematical work and let them work those subjects until they feel comfortable with them – learning driven by the student, not the calendar.

And, hopefully, what we’ll find is that the beauty of mathematics is there for grade-school students to find, too – just as long as we don’t go installing upholstery that doesn’t belong there.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Dang, y’all. This is good. Really good. Especially as I’m fumbling about try to decide whether or not to move to yet another curriculum because I find them all so very flawed. And while I love Denise Gaskins’ “Let’s Play Math” book, I still feel locked in the traditional “computation is easy to grade” mindset.

    Reply

  2. Posted by debbiesmith28 on December 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    I like the analogy with the unwanted furniture from the movie! Sometimes the regular school curriculum can feel like cold wooden pews when everyone knows many kids are more comfortable lounging around on bean bags! Thank you

    Kind Regards Debbie Smith

    Website: http://www.debbie.co.nz For Debbie’s online home Blog: Thinkers Online For all things gifted Linked In: Debbie Adele Smith

    Reply

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