This post is part of a four-part series: Milestones, Gaps and Falling Behind. Find links to the rest of the series at the bottom of this post.
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. Everything from here is a deeper dive, breaking up into more specific mathematical disciplines over time.
The secret about 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
While math does build on itself as you advance, in general, 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 (some schools require trigonometry to be one of these.) But almost all of them require Algebra and Geometry.
You have the option to take higher math like calculus if you know you want to pursue a technical college degree. 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. Higher math is usually referred to as anything above beginning calculus.
What about this higher math? What if my child wants to be an engineer? I interviewed my brother who is a civil engineer with an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. 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 at Georgia Tech. 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. (A scandalous secret about college is that you can also skip taking certain classes if you pass a test.) 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. But 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. Pursuing higher math is not about computation or picking the perfect math curriculum in middle school. 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. The truth is, people with all kinds of elementary school math experiences have gone on to be successful in math-related careers.
You can remove the “linear path” mental model and think of elementary math as being in its own little box. Focus on that box for now. Your math curriculum will walk you through everything your child needs. 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.
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 room for flexibility. 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.