As we enter SATS season, I’m on my education rant again. In the Far East, six year olds know their times tables up to 12, a target that has been set by the UK government for children of 11 years. A target that has been required to be set as it has thus far been largely unmet. Growing up, my sisters and I were ridiculed on holidays back to Taiwan when our cousins (subject to the rigorous mathematics curriculum and public adoration of anyone deemed “good” at maths) performed long divisions in their head that had us reaching for our calculators.
“So what?” we would retort, “Why bother when we can use a calculator?”
Shamefully, this is the same retort used by the new tech savvy generation for whom spell-check and mobile phone calculators have deemed a brain unnecessary. Sure, I still agree to some extent that complex maths should be done using a calculator, but basic mental arithmetic and an understanding of mathematical concepts should be basic universal knowledge. A good friend of mine (who is an actuary) volunteers as a maths teacher to adults in a South African township as he believes that it is numeracy and mathematical ability that will take people out of poverty.
Why is the general level of maths so bad?
Actuary blames the lack of availability of good maths teachers, and Banker reckons this is as people that are good at maths can be paid more in the city than in teaching. I blame the bad PR that maths gets in general and society’s acceptance that “maths is hard” and “maths is for nerds”. This rep doesn’t exist in the Far East, as evidenced in the recent film ‘X+Y’, where the Asperger’s boy “anti-hero” who has a flair for maths and is an outcast in the UK, is viewed as a “Hero” and legitimate mainstream love interest by the Chinese girl when transplanted to maths camp in Taiwan. Maybe when we in the UK learn to fancy girls and boys that can solve quadratic equations as much as girls and boys that can write love poems in the manner of Keats, we could have a maths renaissance.
It seems though that things are changing and that I am not the only one disgruntled by the apathy and low expectations for maths even under the supposed hard target-setting “Gove-ian” government, as the number of Kumon centres spreading fast across the UK can attest. When posters at my local tube station are inviting me to set up my own Kumon maths teaching centre in order to earn shed loads of money, one can only imagine that the demand for better maths education is such now that the government should think harder about supplying more and better teaching lest the gap between the Kumon-haves and Kumon have-nots should widen.
The Pros & Cons of Kumon
For those unfamiliar with Kumon, it is a Japanese system of learning maths focused on daily practice of maths using generic maths worksheets targeted at your child’s level. You attend a special “Kumon Centre” to get your worksheets marked and some advice on corrections; then you get set more worksheets to do at home until your next attendance at the centre. For this you pay a not-insignificant subscription fee, albeit less than a personal maths tutor.
You might think that being a maths-ophile that I would love Kumon, but you’d be wrong. Whilst I am a fan of improving mathematical ability, and am in no doubt that practicing maths on a daily basis will significantly improve your child’s mathematical ability, I am not convinced by it enough to send my own children, although I have to admit that I have never set foot in a Kumon centre, but have spoken to many people that use Kumon and have investigated the website and promotional literature.
Can it be in any way fun?
The advertising may suggest that the “centres” are fun places of learning, and that the specially designed worksheets “will make maths enjoyable”, however from what I have seen, the centres are just rented halls where children sit and do worksheets. The worksheets are similar to any other worksheets printable from on-line sites or workbooks purchasable from WHSmiths. There is likely to be added value of having worksheets targeted at your child’s individual ability rather than their chronological age, but they are no more “fun”. Even the Kumon logo depicts an unhappy face. I always wondered if this was supposed to resemble the children going in or coming out of Kumon, neither seemed to send a positive message.
It still relies on parental discipline
I could see the attraction of handing over my innumerate child and being handed back a child that was numerate and confident at maths with no effort from me, but from my observations of Kumon parents, that’s not the case. No, Kumon mums (I don’t like to bring gender into it but I have only yet met Kumon mums and Kumon nannies) are frazzled as they are the ones that need to uphold the discipline to make the said innumerate child do the blessed worksheets throughout the week.
Evaluation is still teacher led
Whilst parents are required to nag children to complete their worksheets, it is the teacher that evaluates and monitors progress and sets the agenda. Maybe I am just too much of a control freak, but I think that parents should have a role in this. Some parents love Kumon (and maths tutors and private schools) and actively avoid “evaluating” their children’s ability. They see it as somehow making a value judgement on their child and this being somehow unhealthy as they should always believe that their child’s ability is SUPER. Some such parents get a nasty surprise if their children underperform and pass disappointment on to their children; others blame the teachers for not getting the best out of their SUPER-able child.
I believe in the reverse. I think that evaluating and monitoring your child’s ability is essential so that as a parent you have an accurate, realistic and evidence-based picture of your child so that you can guide them into the appropriate school/ university/ career. There is no value-judgement as your child IS SUPER no matter what their ability.
As I alluded to earlier, I believe that Kumon is just another way in which the middle-classes can pull away from the mainstream. We shouldn’t need Kumon; we should be putting pressure on the government for the betterment of overall maths education. The proliferation and promotion of “professionals” in maths tuition undermines the very real and practical advancements that can be made with primary maths learning by parental involvement in reinforcing school maths. Most parents who are sending their children to Kumon have at least primary school level education and should be able to help their children with maths at this level without the requirement of paid professionals. If increased efforts were made to educate parents on supporting their child’s education, children from all backgrounds would benefit.
What did I do?
I am speaking from the middle of my maths journey with my children. I cannot in all certainty confess ultimate success, nor admit to a pain and frustration free experience to date. Most of what I did and am doing is based on trial and many errors. I summate the optimum strategies that I have garnered not the entirety of my experience which contains many expletives, failures and revisions. Although I can confess that both my children are performing at the top end of their respective classes at maths, I cannot negate the real effects of genetics on this outcome. Irrespective of this, I am happy with the choices I made and so am sharing my limited insights with you, in case you may find it of value.
I introduced numbers to my kids at the same time that letters were introduced. Literacy and numeracy are to be given parity in my book. Children are just as capable of learning a sequence of numbers as they are a sequence of letters. From when my children were a young age I carried a notebook around with me and if there was a period of “waiting time”, for instance waiting to be served in a coffee shop, I would draw puzzles (mazes, matching puzzles, counting puzzles) for my children. If they were completed easily, I would make the next one harder. If they were too hard, I would make the next one easier.
As the children grew older, these puzzles moved towards proper mathematics. Rather than only being served up in “dead-time”, they were served up daily. Initially this was done in the evenings when I got home from work, but on finding the children (and indeed me) too tired at this time of day, I switched it to the mornings. This worked a lot better as the children were fresh and my over-enthusiastic tendency to set more and more work was naturally curtailed by the requirement to send children to school and get to work on time. The initial protests subsided and they came to realise this was the routine from now on.
Friends looked at me like I was bonkers when I told them that I wrote my own maths worksheets for the kids, but what better way to tailor work for your children? By having daily exposure to what my children found easy and hard, I could not only have an in-depth understanding of their precise ability, but also be in the best position to set and manipulate their next worksheet. If single digit additions were proving easy, then you can bet that double digit additions were thrown into the mix on the next worksheet. However, if there were too many tears and frustrations, the next few worksheets would be deliberately easy to restore confidence. By writing your own worksheets, you can not only tailor your child’s learning but heavily manipulate their confidence.
When abstract problems became taxing, I found that re-framing problems into applied mathematics sorted the problem. Big Sis struggled immensely with problems such as “What number is half-way between 26 and 36?” She cried. Many times. I tried to explain it many times unsuccessfully: “You can either add the two numbers together and halve the total; or, you can add to the smaller number half the difference between the two numbers”. Not surprisingly, Big Sis developed glazed over eyes and hands over ears “la-la-la – not-listening” pose much to my annoyance. Then one time, lashing out in desperation I happened to say: “I give you 26 sweets and I give Lil Bro 36 sweets…”, then before I could even finish my sentence, Big Sis declares “That’s not fair! He shouldn’t get more than me! We should both get…(counting)… 31 sweets each” and “Bingo”. The war was won. From then on, problems were made real and Big Sis relished calculating “real world” problems. When Banker ran the barbecue at the school fair, maths worksheets were laden with problems of “Your friend Henry wants to buy 3 hot dogs from your dad. Hot dogs are £3 each, how much does he need to spend? What change must your dad give him from a £10 note?” At birthday time when Digi-birds were requested, “How many Digi-birds can you buy with the £30 your grandma will give you?” Go-figure, self-interest really helps with maths. Maths was made useful if not fun. There were no more complaints.
Once confidence was gained at maths, we moved on to shop-bought workbooks. If workbooks were a struggle, then the same book would be reworked again, being very easy the second time around, not only to consolidate knowledge but to boost confidence. The message “Maths can be easy”. And because I am evaluating and monitoring progress, as well as her teacher, nothing said at parents’ evening surprised me. I can pick up a Key Stage 1 Maths paper and know almost exactly which questions Big Sis will answer correctly and which she will struggle with.
Why is this important?
When the 11+ exams come around and performance will matter, I don’t need to rely on the opinion of others, I can be (almost) confident about my children’s performance and if I do not think that they will succeed, then they will not sit the exam. The bar will be set at achievable. Expectations can be managed in advance, disappointments avoided, and crucially self-esteem preserved. Self-esteem, confidence and a continued keenness to learn always matter more than the final mark at this age, and arguably at all ages as life is a marathon not a sprint. Contrary to popular belief that children who are being set regular work are “pressurised”, I believe the reverse. The “pressure” comes from the weight of parental expectation not parental preparation.
If you have the time and inclination, give Kumon a miss, roll up your sleeves and give it a go. There are frustrations and discipline required (but this is required of Kumon too) but there is also satisfaction and delight when you witness the penny drop and the passing of knowledge and the instillation of confidence.
I remember fondly my mother teaching me maths (despite my tears and tantrums) and I hope as adults my children will feel the same way.