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Daddy in the Mix: 5 Tips to Solve Math

Written by Anna McFarland.   

Albert Einstein said, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” When you’re teaching a subject for which your student has a natural proclivity, that sounds doable. But what if you’re talking about teaching math to a right-brained learner?

That was me. And in our family, my dad was the logical choice to try to awaken “joy” for math in me. At the time, just hearing the word “math” made me cringe, but Dad had a different perspective since he had an accounting degree.

A straightforward approach to math didn’t work for me and many teaching sessions ended in tears of frustration. I related to another Albert Einstein quote: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are still greater.”

Now that I’m guiding my younger siblings through the world of numbers, my father has my sincerest sympathies. Having been on both sides of the equation (learner and teacher), I’ve grown to appreciate some of the methods Dad used to help me to break through to understanding and learn how to value math.

Math Tip #1: Give Math a Real-Life Context

Answer the big question for your students—why do they need to learn math? This was an easy for one for my dad. His livelihood depended on math, so I understood its importance to our family. But for me? Yes, I wanted to graduate high school, but how did math relate to my ambitions?

Again, Einstein articulated it well when saying, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Thinking logically in the abstract is a general skill that impacts abilities in so many professions and activities, it would be impossible to list them all. If you cooked a meal, planned a trip, paid bills, worked out, sang or played music or any other number of common activities today, you used math.

No matter how much technology advances, such as being able to calculate a tip on your phone, there is no substitute for exercising your mind. Success in math gives you the ability and confidence to solve problems on your own. Once your student understands the purpose of math, keep the inspiration flowing.

Math Tip #2: Bring the Problems off the Page

I had a mental roadblock with multiplication. No matter how many times my dad walked me through the problem on paper, I could not understand it. It was time for desperate measures.

Since I collected beanie babies at the time, I had a holder on the back of my bedroom door that my mom had sewn for me. Yes, every puppy, bear and horse had its own slot. My dad used the columns and rows of my beanie baby holder to breakthrough my mental block and teach me the concept of multiplication.

In addition to tangible items, try using your students’ favorite movie or book characters to illustrate mathematical concepts.

Once when my younger sister and brother were reading a series about a captain on the high seas, I challenged them to solve problems in order to fight off the pirates. For every correct answer, one of the pirates was thrown into the brig—my siblings loved it.

Math Tip #3: Find What Works, Then Venture Out

I learned the hard way that “new” curriculum does not necessarily mean “better.” One year in high school, my dad introduced a new book to me that used different ways to solve difficult equations. The result? I felt trapped in an equation without a calculator.

After that experience, we went back to the original method and added onscreen tutorials and things finally started to click.

If you find a curriculum or teaching technique that’s working, ride that wave ‘til it hits the shore, then circle back and try new strategies for solving equations. Even if cute multiplication tricks like, “I ate (8) and ate (8) until I got sick on the floor (64)” work well enough to get the grade, your students need a conceptual framework so that when memory fails, they have the ability to reconstruct that procedure.

Math Tip #4: Patiently Push, but not too Hard

Even though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, I now realize the value of that one-on-one time with my dad during math lessons. My math pages were marked with corrections, but I learned from them and I learned to persevere.

If your student learns math slower than others, it is important to be patient while he or she wrestles with the answer. However, don’t let the wrestling bring them to tears.

As parent-teacher, you’re the most qualified to discern when that healthy battle with math equations is about to become an unhealthy frustration that is counterproductive to learning.

Math Tip #5: Find Inspiration and Excitement to Encourage Learning

There are several websites with tips and games to make learning math more exciting:

  • MathPlayground.com offers videos and games (including arcade!) for Grades 1-8.

  • MathGameTime.com offers games, puzzles, worksheets, and more from Pre-K to 7th grade.

  • PBSKids.org/games/math has a wide variety of games using classic characters and PBS TV shows to help connect with learners.

  • High schoolers check out “8 Videos that Prove Math is Awesome” on Mashable.com or “Math Talks to Blow Your Mind” on YouTube.com.

Also, search for videos or biographies of people who have used math to accomplish great things. In addition to Albert Einstein, search for Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos, American mathematician Michael Harris, and Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

I never fell madly in love with math; to this day I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around problems. However, I do have a healthy respect for the subject and its ubiquitous role in life. My dad instilled that in me, and if I can instill that in my siblings, I consider it a job well done.

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This article is reprinted with permission of Texas Home School Coalition and the author. It originally appeared in Review magazine. Visit THSC.org.

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