Math. This is the one school subject that scares us the most. Half of us have our own math trauma that we still haven’t worked through. We remember the tears and the struggle and test-taking anxiety.
We like the idea of working at our child’s pace, but deep down we’re terrified that this will compound exponentially over time, leaving them so behind that they will lose years of their lives, as well as all of their opportunities for college, career and long-term relationships. We think that our children who want to be engineers and mathematicians will never reach their dreams and it will be all our fault.
Here is your new motto for math: mastery over milestones. What you need to focus on right now is not getting to a certain point by an arbitrary time. What you have to do is help your child to gain mastery over foundational concepts.
You want your children to have mastery of basic math facts because then the door is wide open for everything else. From there, everything else is a deeper dive, breaking up into more specific mathematical disciplines over time.
The secret about K-12 math is that it doesn’t take all that long to learn. The second secret is that there’s a lot of repetition between grade levels. Sudbury school (a democratic interest-led school) reported that kids who had no formal math through all of school were able to learn the K-12 math they needed for the SAT in anywhere from 12-30 hours. I recommend reading about that here.
Levels of Math
In Elementary school most kids learn the same material–basic arithmetic and practical math. As a child moves through their education, they will encounter and use these foundational concepts over and over again.
How does math progress? In middle school math is introducing selected content from Algebra and Geometry. Then when you get to high school you go more in-depth with both of these, taking them as their own separate courses. Most high schools require three math credits to graduate and students can pick which ones they want to do, depending on what kind of college classes they think they might want to take later. (You have the option to take higher math like calculus if you know you want to pursue a technical college degree, but you don’t have to. You can take it later on if you need it, or not at all!)
This all varies from school to school, but hopefully that gives you a general idea of how math courses are spaced through a school career.
What about this higher math? What if my child wants to be an engineer? Higher math is usually referred to as anything above beginning calculus.
I interviewed my brother who is a civil engineer with an engineering degree from Georgia Tech to find out about this. Before he was an engineer, he had actually graduated with a music degree from another college. What did that mean? It meant he had taken hardly any college math; or higher math for that matter. When he decided he wanted to be an engineer, he needed a lot more math to get into his program of choice. When he sat down with his advisor to figure out what he needed in order to apply, he was discouraged because it was going to take him many semesters to complete the math prerequisites he needed.
Want to know what he did? He bypassed hours of class time by testing out of those lower math classes. I asked him how he did this and he told me he went on Kahn Academy and learned what he needed to pass the test. This took a few weeks. Then he tested out of months of the prerequisite math classes, took the rest of the higher math he needed, and eventually got into the program he wanted at Georgia Tech.
Because math builds on itself, we tend to think that what our kids are learning in elementary school will have a big effect on whether they are able to pursue engineering and math degrees. It is actually unrelated. Everyone learns the same type of math in elementary school. That’s because the basics matter more than anything. In high school is when students can make the decision to take prerequisite math classes necessary for engineering degrees.
The key to a math-related career isn’t a mysterious process that causes your child to score high on standardized tests compared to kids from other parts of the world. It’s about knowing how to learn and caring enough to put in the effort. Like any other career, it’s about being willing to jump through the hoops and put in the time. There will be people who will argue that certain types of math curriculum better prepare kids to be engineers. (Watch out for marketing that does this!) The truth is, people with all kinds of elementary school math experiences have gone on to be successful in math-related careers.
Furthermore, people well into their twenties an thirties choose academic paths and change them all the time! (Which means they’re technically “behind” and have to start again–much like my brother.). This is completely normal will not ruin your child’s life.
So what should you do? You should focus on mastering the basics. Your math curriculum will walk you through everything your child needs to know. Remember, they will repeat these concepts over and over throughout the life of their education. So any math curriculum that engages your child and makes sense to them will work!
Early math curriculums contain mostly the same content but there are different approaches to learning math, and your child might like one better than another. But all of them work in terms of giving your kids the basic tool box that they need. Pick the curriculum that you can do a little bit of every day.
It’s impossible to give every kid the exact same math education. Skills and concepts taught in math (as well as exactly when they are taught) varies from school district to school district! Common Core is trying to homogenize this across all states, but even those set standards are open-ended, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
Your goal in homeschool math is to meet your child where they are and help them make progress.
We still do a little bit of math every day because I like my kids having that tool box to support their interest-led learning, but they all work at their own pace.
Go here for the post about topical subjects (history, literature, science and geography)
Go here for the post about starting and grade levels
Go here for the post about phonics and reading comprehension.
For further reading like this, you can get my free curated book list for homeschool mamas here, with over sixty titles to encourage you on your journey. If you’re just starting, go here to read my collection of “Getting Started” blog posts.