STUMP » Articles » Teaching Your Kids Math (for free) » 15 November 2014, 08:20

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Teaching Your Kids Math (for free)  

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15 November 2014, 08:20

Having seen a lot of agita over acquaintances’ children’s math homework, I thought I would come bring help.

No, I am not going to say anything specific about Common Core. The issue of making arithmetic and basic math way too cognitively complicated for students (as well as the elementary school teachers, but that’s for another time) goes back decades:



That was from a 1965 recording. When my mother was 13 years old.

Luckily, by the time I was in elementary school, the fad was back at drilling in arithmetic (and we still had plenty of teachers from the time when women had very few career choices). It didn’t matter, mom did flashcards with me. Dad bought me math (and computer programming) books that I taught myself from.

So here is my main advice for those dealing with extremely confusing math homework for their kids: the goal is that they learn how to do the math. Not that they jump through the schools’ hoops.

I’m sorry that my advice is not necessarily going to end up with good grades, but that’s a superficial goal.

Math is very interlocking in its topics, and if you screw up your understanding of some very key concepts, you’re going to have trouble with others later on. For example, if you don’t get the hang of multiplication, you’re going to have a hell of a time with division. If you don’t get division, you’re screwed with regards to fractions, and so forth.

My advice boils down to this:

1. Find a reasonable framework as to how these topics interlock

2. Find a starting point for your child where they have mastery

3. Have your child practice math every day by doing problems (the younger the child, the less amount of time — I think about 10 minutes is a good amount of time to start)

4. Check what they did right after they did problems, and make them correct the problems (first, let them try on their own, and then you can help)

5. They can’t progress to the next topic til they get to at least 80% mastery of the prior one

Some may recognize this as the approach Kumon takes, and indeed, that’s where I get all the above.

But you don’t have to go to Kumon to do the above. I like using Kumon for the girls, because they’re homeschooled, and it’s good to have an external check on their progress. They’ve both been doing Kumon since they were 5. Mo is now doing some simple algebra (about same age I was doing simple algebra), and Bon is now working on arithmetic of fractions.

So where can you get the framework to follow, and where do you get the problems, for free?

BIG ONE: Khan Academy

Just go to the front page, and they’ve made it even easier for parents — just click on the button that says, “Parents Start Here” — if you don’t see that go here for a walkthrough.

Khan Academy has a map of math topics you can get started on. Here is the sequence for arithmetic. Yes, they have Common Core content – but it seems to me unlikely it will have anything to do with whatever specific textbooks and worksheets your kids’ schools are imposing on them. Also, I don’t recommend going there. Just go to their regular math content.

There are an infinite amount of math practice problems, and there are explanatory videos for every concept. Each student has their own “learning dashboard”, so they (and you) can see their progress. One can earn badges, etc., but it’s mainly to keep track that one is actually progressing. With Khan Academy, parents don’t have to check the problems – the site does that for the student. Khan Academy also indicates proficiency on each topic.

Yes, Khan Academy has other topics as well, but only their math section is extremely well-developed. And some of the non-math stuff… is not exactly accurate. I don’t want to get into that. The math stuff is good, and I come here to talk about math. There are also recreational math videos, but that’s not really part of the “map”. It’s more for fun.

Speaking of fun, there is another site we use, sumdog, which has free activities but keeps trying to upsell you to subscriptions. The girls like to play on sumdog, too, but the types of questions are more restricted, there’s not as clear of a map of topics.

However, the plus of sumdog is that its activities are structured as actual games, and the prizes you earn from doing well in the games are things like new duds for your avatar (which is more fun for kids than simply earning a meteor badge, as an example.) I wouldn’t use sumdog for progression through topics, but I think it’s good for fun reinforcement.

The point is this:

Students need to learn proper arithmetic. I don’t care about the algorithm so much, as long as it always gives correct answers and the student understands it.

The only way you learn arithmetic, and math at most levels until you get to college-level abstraction (and even then…), is to do problems, get feedback as to whether or not you were wrong… AND THEN FIX WHAT YOU SCREWED UP.

Everybody forgets that last part. The way you learn to fix your errors or catch them is to actually be forced to fix your errors!

I didn’t get that lesson from math, by the way, but my adventures in computer programming. I rarely got questions wrong on my elementary school math homework/tests/etc. I did screw up all the time in programming, and you have to have everything correct to get your code to work. If people think math is unforgiving, programming is really unforgiving.

By the way, while sumdog is obviously for kids, Khan Academy is for everybody. I have sent several adults (some older than me) to that site for them to brush up on math they need for professional development purposes. Yes, I’ve even sent people there who needed a calculus brush-up for the actuarial exams. So parents, you may find yourself wanting to do a bit of a math tune-up yourself.

I will talk in a later post about what math I think adults absolutely need to know (and no, it doesn’t include the whole map at Khan Academy.)

Go forth and learn math, y’all!


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