Saturday, May 28, 2011

Math Curricula and Time Management

This is largely a response to Chris' interesting post at A Blog About School about a local private school which is switching over to Singapore Math.

Chris professes to be a non-combatant in the Math Wars, although he's no fan of the Everyday Math his kids use. At the same time, he's concerned that his kids' school schedules an hour for math every day, but the kids barely have enough time to eat lunch, and they have art only once a week.

For me, there are two separate issues here. One is the time management practiced by schools, which is generally terrible. To the extent that schools even care about time management, their philosophy seems to be: "We're stuck with classrooms full of kids for 35 hours a week. We've got to do something with the kids so they won't riot and tear the place down. How can we possibly fill all that time?"

The impulse to fill the time results in dumb makework projects, some of which we parents get to see when they get sent home as homework (oh joy!)

Schools brag that their kids do an hour of math a day, as if that proves the school is serious about teaching math. But what exactly are the kids doing for an hour? If they're doing boring, pointless, time-eating measuring projects, more time ≠ more learning.

The second issue is that of curriculum. Chris is afraid that bringing in a serious academic curriculum like Singapore Math would mean using even more time in the classroom.

I would like to assure Chris that curriculum vs. time wouldn't have to work out the way that he fears. That is, a serious math curriculum like Singapore doesn't need to take more time than the schools are now spending on Everyday Math. If it was done well it would take LESS time. Why? Because it's clear and concise. Its goal is to teach real math skills and concepts in the most effective way possible.

I tutored a 6th-grader, using Singapore Math, for 7 hours before we left for our travels. My student covered about 2 years of math over that time, and she's solid with the basics. Granted, this is a very bright kid, and it was one-on-one tutoring, but it's some indication of how little time real learning requires under good conditions.

As good homeschoolers have proven over and over again, a coherent, serious curriculum can be taught in far less time than schools usually take up today. Then the rest of the day can be devoted to all the things we want our kids to have in their lives: recreation, sports, friends, and following their own interests.

What we usually see in school is the worst possible set of choices; that is, an incoherent, shallow curriculum implemented in the least effective way possible with the goal of using up a maximum of hours in the day.


  1. Actually, I think you're right -- the school's choice of a math curriculum probably has nothing to do with its decision about how much time to dedicate to math instruction. (And the former is probably much more thought-out than the latter.)

    My main concern about elementary school math is that I question whether anything is gained by forcing kids at that age to learn math when they could probably learn it more easily and with less frustration if we just waited until they're a little older. (Your experience of covering two years of math in seven hours with a sixth-grader may support that idea.)

    But even if we completely abolished compulsory math instruction in elementary school (and maybe especially if we did), there would be kids who did want to learn about it. For those kids, I'm very open to the idea that a more "traditional" math curriculum would serve them better than something like Everyday Math. But I think everything's going to get easier, no matter what curriculum you use, if you're working with a kid who has chosen voluntarily to learn about math.

  2. Chris, I could definitely be on board with teaching kids in a more streamlined way at a later age.

    As for kids wanting to learn, that's a tough one. Conventional school does such a thorough job of turning kids off of learning.

  3. I really enjoy reading your posts and agree with a great deal of what you've written above about math curriculum. I used to teach Everyday Math and while some of it was strong, alot of it was confusing fluff. Do keep in mind though, that it's going to take more time to teach 20+ students vs. 1-4 at home. I'm not sure I would compare the two.

  4. I think Dalia is right that what can be accomplished at home cannot necessarily be accomplished with 20 (or more like 30) kids in a classroom at school. I wouldn't agree that we shouldn't compare the two situations, though -- I think the comparison would certainly give pause to anyone who's in a position to homeschool.