“Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” -Albert Einstein
Our struggle with mathematics has been particularly difficult of late. The verse “we battle not against flesh and blood” comes to mind. We battle not against Math-U-See and Steve Demme, but against the burden of finding the poetry within the logical ideas of math when our natural bent as a homeschool classroom is towards the fanciful words of great literature, the awe-inspiring nature of science, the artistic expression of our paintbrushes, and the conviction of history. The understanding of the basic concepts of math does not seem to be the problem, for we have continued to chug along faithfully through our math books without hitting any huge road blocks. Connecting math to the bigger world around us and understanding WHY it’s so important seems to be the issue we are having. Me telling the girls that I use fractions every single day in preparing meals for the family has not done enough to connect them to the relevancy of mathematics as a whole. In their world, who cares if you know how to divide fractions or add mixed numbers? If you don’t really care, it’s extremely challenging to apply yourself to a subject that demands such focus.
I’ll admit that we’ve had plenty of tears over math pages, particularly because of the lack of relevancy. My desire is to always make any school work we do relevant to the children. Most especially, I’ve tried hard to keep busywork and textbook pages OUT of our classroom as much as I can help it. However, math is singularly tough to keep within the framework of “living books” we’ve established for our other subjects. Elementary math demands repetition to gain mastery. Right now, it’s not very much fun to memorize our multiplication facts and the formula for finding the volume of a cube. The foundational skills my children are learning right now can’t really be skipped, but I find myself dreading the process of trying to convince them that we only have a little while longer before we start to see clearly just how inextricably linked math is to some of their high interest subjects like computer programming, most engineering projects, physics, and chemistry. Why? Because we haven’t done a drop of algebra yet! An academic advisor once told me that it is unwise to introduce the complexities of algebra until children have hair under their arms (i.e. their brains have developed right around that time to think abstractly, an absolutely necessary component of succeeding in algebra) I have followed that advice, and up until now we have only introduced extremely rudimentary algebraic concepts. I doubt that most people who use math on a daily basis in their adult lives are relying heavily on their foundational elementary math (hello, calculators!) but instead turn constantly to what algebra, calculus, and trigonometry taught them. Can you possibly retain those higher maths without memorizing the 9s table? I know quite a few unschoolers who would give me a resounding, “YES!” Yet I’m still not ready to throw out elementary math as a whole. I clearly see that interest is missing, but at the same time I realize that not everything in life that we must accomplish is highly interesting, or even relevant when we wish it would be. It frustrates me to think of the disconnect our basic math workbooks have with the “real world” as my children know it. We might be able to get away with teaching elementary math even though it really only garners true interest with one of my children so far. But I don’t see that highschool and college math can be successful without the component of relevance. Fortunately, however, higher mathematics are structured in such a way that one must only complete a few basic required courses unless there is a true interest and drive to dig deeper. It will be then that we can truly tailor-make a curriculum path based on exactly what kind of math the kids will need to pursue their own futures and put other things aside.
Thus, for today, math time has become more of a lesson in character development than anything else. No, math is not our favorite portion of day and dividing fractions might seem completely ridiculous right now. But pressing in and learning diligence when our flesh screams at us to find something more fun to do is going to help us develop the discipline needed for a lot of things we’ll face in this life. For the smooth- and rough-sailing days alike, I am glad I’ve found an elementary curriculum that is pretty painless when it’s all said and done. Thank the Lord for fun math books like Life of Fred, which we use when our brains need a break from worksheets and we crave some fun story-form math.
Perhaps it’s only now as an adult that I can see in part the beauty of logical ideas. I’m pretty sure I myself didn’t see it when I was my girls’ ages. I can’t wait to see that spark in them when they connect the pieces of math with the world around them, for it truly is the cornerstone of everything in our world.