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Friday, January 23, 2009

How to Make Sure Your Kids are Good at Math- some good tidbits

By Matt Blum EmailJanuary 23, 2009 | 11:30:00 AMCategories: Education, Mathematics, Question of the Week

Math I love math, and I've always been really good at it. I haven't conducted a scientific study, but from my observations there's a direct correlation between the two—that is, the love of math and skill at it. It makes a certain amount of sense that someone who loves math would take the time to get good at it, and that someone who isn't very good at math would be predisposed to dislike it. What I can't figure out, even in my own case, is whether the enjoyment or the skill came first.

As you may have guessed based on the title of the post, I don't want to know this just for historical purposes. I want my kids to be good at math, and it would be great if they also enjoyed it as I do. But I don't know how best to get this to happen. My kids are pretty young, but I started enjoying math when I was young, so I want to make sure I'm doing all I can to inspire interest in them. It's important to me that they're good at math not just because I'm a geek, but also because I think math skills are really important in life. Not only do they make finding the best deal at ther grocery store that much easier, and calculating tips at restaurants much faster, but they're useful in all sorts of circumstances. I was particularly reminded of this a short while ago, when I read this article in the Washington Post about a simple math error resulting in a multi-million dollar error in Maryland state education fund allocation.

I originally started writing this post as a list of ways to get your kids to love math, but then I realized that I really don't know how to do it. I don't remember my parents or teachers doing anything in particular that made me enjoy math, and so far I haven't had a lot of success getting my kids excited about it either. My son is good at math so far, but so far hasn't seemed as interested in it as I was at his age.

So, I'm putting the questions out there: How can you make sure your kids are good at math? How do you get them to enjoy it? And do the two always go hand-in-hand? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Well I don't have any kids of my own, but I can tell you what I would have liked school to do for me to help me like math a bit more.

First, make it as visual as you can. Work with pictures and graphs etc. The problem for many people is that math is extremely abstract and seemingly difficult to apply to our everyday lives, especially the more advanced you go. I am a visual learner. Show me illustrations of mathematical problems and it makes a HELL of a lot more sense and starts to get interesting.

To make math more fun for MYSELF, i used to do computer animation of basic geometry concepts on my Amiga and present them to the class in 8th and 9th grade (a bit older, but you get the idea). The teacher loved it and I got to get out of taking some tests.

Competition also makes it fun. Play timed math games pitting one kid against another or something like that perhaps.

Hope that helps a bit


Both my wife and I are engineers, so we're both "good" at math. I'd say that we "like" it as well. My wife is a Soduku fiend, for example. I have an unnatural attraction to spreadsheets and Turbotax.

My sons seem good at math. We talk alot about it. I quiz them about arithmatic when it comes up. My older son does Soduku.

The most interesting thing I've found is that football, and to a lesser extent baseball, has helped my son with math. There's a lot of information on the TV during a football game (score, down, yards to go, all the statistics in a game) and my 7 year old has totally picked up on it, and is really now obsessed with football as a result. Watching the game, and talking about the numbers with him, really helped in that regard.

Math is everywhere. Helping them see it, and talking to them about it, is really key. And if you're good at it, its pretty likely that they're going to be good at it.

I'm no teacher, or father (yet), but I would guess would be to work it in context of other things they like. Otherwise, it has no meaning to them and therefore, is meaningless and boring. Like that old teenager complaint about algebra or calculus "when am I ever gonna use this in real life?" Well, in my line of work (engineering), it does come in handy every now and again. It's funny, my wife says she's not good at math, but when we are at sales at the mall, she doesn't seem to have a problem calculating the percentage off real quick. You see, context.

I think it's onboarded or not. Though I admire the beauty of math and use it for my job, which involves graphic design, photography, writing and some other stuff, math has always been a struggle for me. My oldest son (who's a friend of your son's) is great at it, loves it, takes advanced math in school. Wanna see a meltdown? Ask him to write a five-sentence book report. The thing that comes so easy for me is nigh on to insurmountable for him, and vice versa.

I recall riding in the back seat of my father's car on long car trips. He'd give me "problems" to do to pass the time. One of his favorites was to run through the "times tables". He'd pick a number, like 3, and then we'd figure multiplication tables for it. We'd start at 3x1, then 3x2, then 3x3, then 3x4. 3x10 was easy, and we almost never went past 12. The object was memorization, since memorizing these is important to make algebra and other more difficult chores easier later. The other common "problem" was to start with some high number like 85. Then, I'd have to repeatedly subtract something from it and add back something smaller. For example, subtract 7 and then add back 5. 85-7=78. 78+5=83. Then start over, subtracting 7 from 83 and adding back 5. I could do this all alone, out loud, and when I'd hit 0, he'd start me on another. These mental gymnastics got me comfortable quickly "borrowing" and "carrying" when adding and subtracting 2 digit numbers. I can calculate things in my head pretty quickly now, and I think a lot of that skill came from these types of problems I did when younger.

Think about fractions most parents don't care to help teach their children them. but All parent with a few exceptions can cook which is a quick and easy way to teach fractions in a visual and hands on approach. Nothing like baking cookies to make the abstract into concrete

I came late into my wife's sons life. Within two years I turned his math scores around by doing two things. The first, I reinterpreted most of the school's classwork material to be compatible to his way of thinking. The second, I made math part of his daily life. The second is easy, I had him help me compute tips, figure out the car's mpg, and interpret recipes. This was something my own father did and is easy as long as you don't push too hard if the math is beyond the child. The first step was much more difficult, schools do well teaching steps but not ideas, and usually only one methodology. I must have tried ten different ways to get across not only fractions, but also how they were the same as percentage and decimal points (something never covered in school). Persistence and the knowledge that everybody learns differently is what will get you through.

I have a 9 year old and am an engineer.
I try to explain that arithmatic
IS boring, they're just burning
a few rom tables in your head.

The real fun is with geometry
and algebra. Graphing is super
useful and can be done for anything
of interest ---I once had the
kid histogram a dreidel's outcome
because I thought it was biassed.
(It was.)

Also, use the montessori-ish
approach of showing physical
analogies to arithmatic.
Number line, area as multiplication,

Also teach math as a set of tools
in your quiver. Except for pissing
off real mathematicians this is
a very useful way of thinking about

And combine math with other
geekdad things. Eg our hairspray
mortar (aka potato canon) shot
a waterballoon to the top of our 2-story house; from that I found the
formula for velocity and showed
the kid how to compute the
initial velocity from the height.

You've hit the nail when you described the chicken/egg problem of proficiency/affinity. I believe that all humans are capable of significant mathematical sophistication, most just lack the motivation to work hard enough to master it. (Is it more cynical to believe that they are stupid, or lazy?)

But the basic aptitude (and therefore ultimate potential) may have a genetic/hormonal link...

As always, Correlation /= Cause, but interesting nonetheless.