You can play a big role in helping your kids to achieve maths fluency. Based on my experience and personal observation, there are at least 4 things you can do:
#1: Believe in the Growth Mindset
Imagine your child comes back from school one day, crying in frustration, complain that she is simply “not good in maths”. How would you react?
Imagine during Parent-Teacher Conference, your child’s maths teacher tell you that she is simply not good in maths, and should consider dropping it in exams. How would you react?
Imagine your child’s tutor telling you that she is hopeless in maths. How would you react?
Would you believe that your child is not going to make it in maths?
Recent research in neuroscience has shown that our brain is not fixed at birth. It can grow and change, according to the beliefs, activities and experience that we engage in. Carol Dwight, a psychology and a professor, explained in her book and her TED talk that Growth Mindset is about believing that abilities can be developed. Our brains changes with practice. It may be fast or slow, but we do improve with practice.
The first and most important thing you can do, is to understand about the Growth Mindset and to educate your child about it. Build an unshakable belief in your child that she can change the way her brains work through hard work and effective coaching. It will benefit her throughout her life, even beyond learning of maths.
#2: Reaffirms that Maths is logical
Imagine one day, your child comes to you and ask, “Daddy / Mummy, why is the area of a triangle equal to half of the base length multiply by the perpendicular height?”.
In other words, why is:
Area of triangle = 1/2 x base x height?
Would you say, “Maths is just the application of formulas. Just memorise. As long as you know how to apply and get the correct answers to the questions, can already.”?
That is how I have seen some parents responded.
What is wrong with a response like that?
It sends across a few messages to your child: (1) Maths is like a complex machine, as long as she know how to push the right buttons, it doesn’t matter what goes on inside it. The most importantly thing is getting the answers right. (2) Maths is about memory work. Remembering formulas is more important than understanding formulas.
The problem with these messages is that they will gradually become a belief in your child. Sooner or later they will start to think that learning Maths is like learning spells in Hogwarts School of Wizardry. No need to understand, just need to memorise and apply.
This way of learning Maths may allow your child to do well in simple and straight forward calculations like what they typically see in Paper 1, but when it comes to Paper 2 or more complex problems, this way of learning will cause her to fall apart.
There is another side effect when a child is told to memorise maths formulas and methods, but not to question the logic and rationale behind them. The child will gradually lose her creativity and curiosity in maths, and maybe other things.
But what if your child gets overwhelmed by the explanation of formulas? Should you insist on explaining how every formula works, before allowing her to solve a problem and get the answers with it?
As parents I think we need to exercise patience and wisdom when this happens. It’s like how to persuade your child to eat their greens instead of french fries. We need to show them what is good for them in the long run, i.e. understanding how formulas come about. But every parent will agree that there is always a balancing act. We gotta be flexible when our children are overwhelmed. But in the long run, slowly but surely, we want to encourage them to understand the why before the how.
Now, here is an excellent example of persuasive explanation that will help to convince your child that maths is not simple a collection of formulas which does not make sense.
#3: Appreciates alternative Methods – if they make sense
Children are all inherently curious and creative. They like to have self-expressions. When maths are taught in a kids-friendly way, it is a tool for self-expression.
“Look, Mum, I have another way to add these numbers together!”
“Look, Dad, I can also cut this shape this way and get the same answer!”
“Why can’t I do it this way? I get the same answer too!”
There is a very real problem, especially when we look at problem sums in maths, of the Tyranny of Suggested Solutions. You see, there are often more than one way to solve a maths problem. In fact, I’ll be bold and claim that there are always more than one way to solve a problem.
However, some parents, being unfamiliar with what is acceptable in exams, holds on very tightly to the suggested solutions given in maths assessment books. When their children come up with something different from what are in the books, the parents’ mental alarm bell goes off. They put a strong stop to their children’s alternative ideas. That is what I’d call the Tyranny of Suggested Solutions.
Let’s not forget that the workings which come at the end of the assessment books are called “Worked Solutions” or “Suggested Solutions”, not “Only Solutions”. That is because the experts who wrote the suggested solutions know that there will always be alternative methods to solve the same questions.
If we clamp down on alternative ideas, after a while, your child will learn that there is no incentive in thinking out of the box, because the only permitted solution is what is shown at the back of the book. Why bother?
Legend has it, that when Gauss, the child prodigy we mentioned just now, was seven years old, he and his classmates was tasked by his relief teacher to sum all the whole numbers from 1 to 100, just to keep them occupied. He wasn’t happy with the tedious addition tasks, so he found a new way of doing things – by pairing 1 and 100, 2 and 99, 3 and 98, and so on. He found, in a very short time, that the sum of 1 to 100 is just:
50 x 101 = 5050
That is the very famous formula for sum to nth terms for arithmetic series.
If Gauss’s relief teacher was to rebuke him for trying alternative methods, we wouldn’t have this formula today.
#4: Get trained
At school our kid learn in a large class. The ratio is 1 teacher to 40 students. There is not much interaction time between a kid and the teacher, unless our kids are the vocal kind.
If we engaged private tutors, our kids meets their subject tutors once or twice per week.
Who do our kids look for to clarify their day to day doubts and questions about learning?
Us, of course. Or if we are busy, then maybe whoever takes care of them. It can be the grandparents or helpers.
So many of us are the first choice when it comes to helping our kids in learning. Are we trained to effectively coach our kids?
You can be highly qualified and competent in your job. You did not get your competency by chance. You put in hard work for it. You trained for many years to be that good. Your skills did not come naturally.
My point is, if parents are the first teachers to their children, why aren’t parents trained in teaching?
The next question then, is in what areas should you be equipped as parents in order to teach your kids more effectively? That is bearing in mind, that parents like you and I are already very busy with career, caring for children and running the family.
I do not propose that we parents go through a rigorous, NIE-styled training. We don’t even need to do a certificate course. In my opinion, what works for busy parents are workshops which equipped the following skills:
- Know how our kids are taught in school: Understanding basic principles in mathematics education in Singapore. For example, what is C-P-A, what is Model Method, etc.
- Know how our kids approach numbers: Common learning challenges of P1-P6 children in mathematics, and practical tips of how to help them overcome these challenges.
- Know how our kids are motivated: What are kids unmotivated about maths? Why do some have maths anxiety? Why do some kids love maths? How do we make maths relevant? How do we explain the role and importance of maths in our lives?
- Know how our kids are assessed: What do teachers and exam markers look out for in exam marking? How to excel in exams?
- Know how we can communicate at our kids’ frequencies: Hands-on practice of a few proven teaching techniques
To fit the schedule of busy parents, I think that these workshops should be made into short learning videos, so that busy parents like us can watch them at our own time while managing our busy schedules. Homemakers can watch it when their kids are off to school at the comfort of their own homes or their favourite cafe.
Watching videos alone may not be enough. I propose that we should also have some sort of weekly or bi-weekly online coaching session.
Why online? So that parents don’t have to spend time travelling to a central location.
The timing can be at two sessions, one in the weekday morning (9.30-11.30am, for example) to suit homemakers parents, or weekends (Saturday or Sunday 2-4pm, for example) to suit working parents.
This coaching session can be conducted by experienced maths tutors (like, ahem, yours truly 😀 ), so that practical questions can be answered, and parents can exchange notes on what really works (hey, who says that teachers and tutors always have the best answers?).
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This sounds like a good idea to me, both as a parent and as a math educator. That is why I am working on it, to make it come true. If you are interested to be kept in the loop about the progress, do leave a comment.
If, after reading this, you have some ideas to contribute to make this work, you are welcomed to leave a comment too.