Math Gene Therapy Wanted
September 11, 2006 5:48 AM   Subscribe

It's official: my 11 year-old daughter is missing her math gene: Please suggest some math gene therapy.

She does well with math in school but it seems based on rote learning, not understanding. For example, she can ace a multiplication quiz but has trouble knowing when to use multiplication or divsion in simple word problems.

Any suggestions on how to improve her math skills? Any activities/games that would "mask" mathimatical learning?
posted by sexymofo to Education (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Give her some money to invest in the stock market along with some rudimentary instructions on trading.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:11 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Math is flexible and can bend towards her; she shouldn't have to bend towards math. So the key is to figure out what sort of learner she is.

I'm a bit eccentric: I love abstract thought and am turned off by anything applied. I prefer math that isn't tied to anything in the real world to "story problems." That's me. Is your daughter like me? Probably not.

Maybe she needs her math rooted more in the real world. If so, it can be tied to money, baking, building bridges, etc. If possible, REALLY root it in the real world. In other words, don't just give her story problems (stories are not the real world -- they are still an abstraction). Flip real coins with her and calculate the probabilities; shop for things and calculate tips...

Maybe she needs math to be built into some sort of process. Programming is great for this. Teach (or learn with her) a simple programming language (Flash/Javascript would be great) and get her to start building things.

Maybe she would take to math if it were tied to history. As you know, Math has a long history. One can read about it and follow along via equations.

Maybe she's missing a LOGIC gene -- not a math gene (not that they're easily distinct). If so, she might enjoy learning conversational logic. Learning that first helped me appreciate formal logic.

A great way to make her hate math forever is to force her to do it. Presumably, this is what happens at her school. So you have a counter-battle to fight.
posted by grumblebee at 6:15 AM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Take her grocery shopping, and work on figuring out what is a good deal, and what is not, in her head, from package pricing. A lower per unit cost is not always associated with a bigger package, and even when the per unit cost is lower, it is not always the best value.

Plan trips using maps, and have her calculate distances and times in evaluating best routes. This will be mostly addition and ratios, but it is worth it for the work she gets between stated goals (shortest route, fastest route, smoothest route, etc.)
posted by paulsc at 6:17 AM on September 11, 2006

Adding to Wet Spot's cool idea, you could try teaching her to play poker for pennies. It's not exactly math, but it will teach her to think on her feet.
posted by grumblebee at 6:17 AM on September 11, 2006

Does she play an instrument? Both of my boys take piano lessons and I've seen marked improvement in their approach to math/logic.

Baking is another great way to integrate math skills into life. Double or halve a recipe.
posted by Biblio at 6:22 AM on September 11, 2006

sexymofo: if it is "lack of interest" then you should find the math related to or contained into the topics she likes the most . If she "hates it" or "deeply dislikes it" it could be that she is not applying enough to the problem, she gets frustrated and choose the memory way that doesn't require understanding..a good math teacher (or even you) should first understand if she is rejecting some point or even making some valid assertions like "zero doesn't exist ! " or "Numbers are useless".

My personal experience is a deep rejection of math, almost an hate that petrified me into thinking I wasn't "good at math" so I shouldn't try harder, because failing would have "Invalidated" me and even attract the delusion of my parents. Even today I feel the "fear" of maths, but it is much more contained by the realization it is a subject I can handle (got the equivalent of B in college calculus after enormous work, a B that is worth a lot of confidence to me)
posted by elpapacito at 6:32 AM on September 11, 2006

And for the love of God please don't let her think you like/love her LESS because of her math shortcomings : a kid needs parent support in affective way a lot more then a good grade in math. Don't EVER tell her she is stupid or that she doesn't understand (kid sometime read it as "I am stupid, worthless") ...patience and determination to help her without making a mock of her....any way is good except just telling her she needs to work's a delicate, but easily achievable balance of not suffocating her (by doing her homeworks or doing them ALL the time with her) and not leave herself completely alone with the problem.
posted by elpapacito at 6:37 AM on September 11, 2006

Positive reinforcement is good, but also be on the lookout for the utterly, perniciously false notion that academic inadequacy in math or science is somehow excused by excellence in English or social sciences.

Someone who doesn't know her math or science to a level of basic competence is ignorant, plain and simple, and we grossly misserve students when we tolerate a degree of innumeracy that we would completely intolerable were it a degree of illiteracy. This is obviously true when it comes to the career-preparation aspect of education, but it is just as true (if not just as obviously true) when it comes to the civic aspect of education -- there aren't many problems in our government today that can't be explained by the electorate's lack of the math skills necessary to understand basic economics.
posted by MattD at 6:51 AM on September 11, 2006 [3 favorites]

It's amazing how fast people learn math when their own money is involved. If she has a savings account tell her she will earn 3% per year, explain in basic terms what that means, and let her figure it out.
posted by StarForce5 at 6:57 AM on September 11, 2006

When I was that age, I was starting to calculate sales tax on purchases. I couldn't do 4.5 percent (the tax at the time in Virginia), but I could do 5 x (cost of items), then move the decimal point over by spaces. Add that to cost of items and you've got your approximate cost with sales tax. I had a pretty small allowance, and being smart about sales tax let me buy as many Reeses Peanut Butter Cups and cans of Coke as I could possibly afford.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:12 AM on September 11, 2006

Best answer: MattD, I agree with you, but it's a hard sell. You need to be able to read to get by on a day-to-day basis. But most of us don't need math in that way. Same with history. Actually, both math and history can help you understand all sorts of social and political issues, but that doesn't have much to do with everyday stuff.

I went from being scared of math to becoming very interested in it and studying it. This interest has changed ME -- but it hasn't changed my life.

Aside from a few nuts-and-bolts concerns, like balancing a checkbook, I rarely have practical use for interesting math. (Once you learn how to calculate a tip, the calculation ceases to be interesting.)

Yes, we want voters who can understand the difference between a million and a billion, but aside from that, we want people to learn math for the same reasons we want people to learn to appreciate good music, fine wine, and Shakespeare. We want to live in an aesthetically pleasing world -- a world in which the people we're around are in touch with beautiful things and ideas.

But that's a hard sell. Once someone knows how to give me correct change, I can't come up with good reasons why they SHOULD learn math or MUST learn math. I just wish they would. And I know that if they did, they would appreciate why it was worthwhile.

Math is its own reward.
posted by grumblebee at 7:18 AM on September 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I expect that an understanding of concrete practical maths would be a good start.

Play cards for money. Make stuff that requires measuring. Work out how tall a fence is with a protractor and a bit of string. Measure it to check you're right, then work out how tall the nearest skyscraper is. Go for a walk/bike ride then measure it on a map, then work out how fast you were going. Lots of map-based stuff can be fun - learn about contour lines, then work out how far you've climbed as well as the horizontal distance. Buy a lottery ticket then work out your chances of winning. Go to the horse/dog races and work out odds. Go swimming and work out how much faster you are running than swimming, then cycling - either in MPH or percentages. Build a treehouse but work out the design on paper and work out how much wood you're going to need... Maths is everywhere.
posted by handee at 7:19 AM on September 11, 2006

Hi, sorry I don't have any lectures or dire warnings for you, but here's a link that looks pretty good:

And even though, as a teacher, I hate saying this, with math a certain amount of repetition is pretty helpful, at least with my 10 year old. I am still playing around with ways to work math problems into relatively fun paper and pencil games like "car wars" or D&D as a combat resolution system, i.e. he has to solve the problem correctly to kill the dragon or do damage to the approaching post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang.

I strongly suspect the best answer to your question hasn't hit this thread yet.
posted by craniac at 7:21 AM on September 11, 2006

sorry, Mefi is the only forum I know of these days that doesn't auto-link urls.
posted by craniac at 7:22 AM on September 11, 2006

It's amazing how fast people learn math when their own money is involved. If she has a savings account tell her she will earn 3% per year, explain in basic terms what that means, and let her figure it out.

The problem is that learning to calculate interest is not the same as learning math. It's just learning how to do one sort of calculation.

One might become passionately interested in one's family history while remaining blissfully ignorant of -- say -- the history of Japan. Or of World History in general. A sick person might avidly read news about cancer research without becoming interested in general science.

Learning math -- if one's going to really learn it -- must span beyond a few need-to-know calculations. Or, if not, then we can just teach people those calculations and be done with it.

Via anecdotal evidence (of myself and people I know), I am highly skeptical that learning everyday math will necessarily (or even likely) lead to an interest in deeper math.

Learning how to read doesn't necessarily lead to a love of Dickens or Bronte.

There's a basic educational problem that we haven't solved (and, alas, I don't think most educators are trying): how do you instill a LOVE of beauty, abstraction, complexity and problem-solving? I suspect that the solution lies in NOT squashing some natural urges of early childhood. We tend to squash them.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 AM on September 11, 2006 [3 favorites]

I'll be a little less pessimistic and more pragmatic. School tends to damage at worst and do nothing at best, so mind-building (or non-squashing) needs to take place at home.

I was very lucky to grow up in the house that I did. My parents were non-pushy intellectuals. Our house was full of books, painting, videos, etc. My parents were always reading and discussing. They NEVER forced anything on me. For the first ten years of my life, all I would read was comic books. My Phd dad never chastised me or even condescended to me. In fact, his attitude was "if comics are what you like, that's what I'll buy you."

Meanwhile, the Shakespeare plays and Updike novels were in easy grasp. Eventually, I met them on my own terms. While I was devouring "King Lear," my peers were learning to hate Shakespeare, because they associated him with stuff they were forced to read in school.

So I think the trick is to fill your child's environment with beautiful things. She shouldn't be able to move without stubbing her toe on a book of impressionist paintings or a collection of Mozart CDs. But don't force them on her or even show regret if she passes them by for years.

We really can't force people to love what we love. But we can show our passion and know that passion is contagious. (Which means that it's not enough to fill your house with culture. YOU must passionately interact with the culture. You will become the model for your child's future behavior.)

Your child may gravitate towards art rather than math (or vice versa), but isn't the ultimate goal to produce happy, intelligent people who follow their own passions?

My upbringing taught me that whatever my passion was, I could indulge it. I didn't get into Math until my 30s. But now I AM into it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:37 AM on September 11, 2006 [3 favorites]

Best answer: sexymofo...

I think it's great you are interested in helping your daughter improve her math skills. Math competence is a great discriminator and like it or not, we correlate it with intelligence and it will open up possibilities in her life that are harder to achieve without it.... i.e. medical school, engineering, etc.

I am of the school that believes it can be taught, and that a variety of approaches can improve math competence. If you make it important to YOU, demonstrate your love of it, share it with her with the hope (not requirement) that she develop an interest, and make it a part of her daily surroundings, it'll sink in. In the end analysis, it has to be important and interesting to her or it will always be a nuisance instead of a joy. You have little control over that.

Meantime, rote is not necessarily bad. Everyone has problems with word problems as a kid. Elementary math is hard work for most people. Her quality as a human is not related to her math skills. Her success in living is the real goal, and she may be a real star in some other area.

If YOU are interested in something that explores the depth and breadth of the field, I recommend Newman's World Of Mathematics series (the 1988 Microsoft Press version). It has 133 papers from original authors and is more of a narrative history than a tutorial. That's for YOU, not your daughter. It's from the early 1950's, but is wonderful.

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 7:39 AM on September 11, 2006

A common thought throughout this thread seems to be "do something with your daughter that is math related." The operant is DO SOMETHING. Children are not so great as listeners but they sure can emulate what they see their parents do.

Another important concept behind math in particular is that it really is a language. If you treat it the same way you would learning a new language, lots of repetition, lots of memorization you will find that it will begin to gel in about 2 years.

Again, most importantly, you have to be involved in the process from the get go, you don't get to slide out until she gets past your skill set.

posted by ptm at 10:18 AM on September 11, 2006

If I'm trying to justify a large purchase to myself, I'll estimate (for example) roughly how many hours I expect to use it for (typical hours of use per day * days in a year * number of years I expect it to last), and then divide the cost by that total to get an idea of the cost per hour of my hypothetical new MP3 player or whatever. In order to get there I need to use both multiplication and division in the right places. It might be worth going through something like this with her next time next time she wants a new cell phone or whatever.
posted by teleskiving at 10:21 AM on September 11, 2006

My daughter is in the same boat, she struggles with math. I've now had the opportunity to tutor and work with 4 different kids as they progressed through 3rd grade word problems. My observation has been that word problems are HARD for most kids, even simple problems. It seems they haven't yet learned how to connect reading to math. With the ones I worked with, we'd work on breaking the problem down. Identifying the numbers and what they meant. Then we'd identify what actions were undertaken in the word problem, and how those actions might translate to mathematical operations. Then, we'd create the equations, and once we had the equation we'd solve it. The last couple of things I'd stress were to show their work and to include the units.
This seems to have helped get them to do better at word problems and get over that particular mathematical hump. But it did take some practice and time.
posted by forforf at 11:03 AM on September 11, 2006

Girls around that age often develop what's been called "math anxiety." It could also be called "math indifference." Suddenly boys are wildly waving their hands in math class and girls just don't get it.

I remember feeling that arithmetic was useful, but everything that came after it (thought problems, algebra, geometry, etc.) was of no use and no interest to me. Individualized instruction would have helped.

Does her school (or its district) have any special math programs just for girls?
posted by Carol Anne at 11:05 AM on September 11, 2006

Start remodeling the house.

No really. And she's going to help you figure out what kind of stuff you need. "The kitchen is 10 feet by 12 feet. There are 8 tiles in a box, and each tile is 12 inches by 12 inches. How many boxes of tile do we need?" "Let's figure out how much moulding we need." "You want new wallpaper in your room? Sure! Let's measure your room and figure out how many rolls of paper we need." "This can of paint says it covers X size room, but we have a Y sized room. Do we have enough paint?" "Wow, look at all this stuff in our cart! About how much is it going to cost? MmHmm, and what's the sales tax on that?"

The world could use more female general contractors. ;-)

Failing that, there's always Kumon.
posted by ilsa at 11:44 AM on September 11, 2006

Best answer: There are a couple activities that I enjoyed when I was her age that I think in the long run helped me with my math skills--cribbage (for doing simple math on the fly) and logic problems and other puzzles in variety puzzles books (for logic). But she has to enjoy them for them to help. My parents also tried playing Yahtzee with me, and it always kind of felt like "let's play Yahtzee so lampoil can practice math!"

But the most important thing that helped me was just being given the chance to use logic to solve math problems. At the beginning of 6th grade I was given the end-of-6th-grade math test to evaluate which level I should be in. That was the beginning of my succeeding in math. Before that, it was all about learning the method and memorizing the tables with not only no practical application, but no intellectual connection between the method and what the method means. On that test for the first time, I was given problems I didn't know "the right way" to solve, so I was able to find my own way to solve. I was bumped a year ahead in math. Years later, I still butted heads with an algebra teacher who would dock me points when I'd get the answer right without using the method she'd made us practice in class.
posted by lampoil at 12:22 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great answers, and lots of them. There are a lot of great inventive ideas. I pick a couple as best, but lots of good stuff here.

Again, thanks a million!
posted by sexymofo at 1:24 PM on September 11, 2006

Have you seen the book "Math Smarts: Tips, Tricks, and Secrets for Making Math More Fun" from American Girl? It's good!
posted by chippie at 7:23 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

How's her reading comprehension?

Even kids who can read aloud or on a page don't necessarily comprehend what they're reading as they read it -- for instance, if you show a child a set of directions for getting on a bus, transferring, and going to a place from the end stop, they may be able to read the words and sentences perfectly, yet be unable to glean any coherent information from this reading.

Often, I've found people who had issues with "story problems" had issues with reading. Schools that don't teach phonics are especially problematic, since children are likely to substitute a word they know that looks similar to an unfamiliar word, instead of sounding the word out.

All these suggestions are good, but I know one of the other things that really makes kids LIKE math, as opposed to "I'm learning this because the teacher says we have to" is to present them with some of the unsolved or more interesting problems in math -- ones that don't seem very "mathematical" (which is to say, at that age, arithmetical) at all. Why does the Fibonacci sequence pop up so often in nature (flower petals, tree branches, etc)? Give a kid the four-color problem and watch them try to come up with an answer (at age 8, this was the problem that made me like math).

You may also want to try the most counterintuitive thing you could possibly think of: teach algebra instead of arithmetic. Some kids who can't do "How many gallons of paint do we need to paint a wall that is 10 feet high and 20 feet wide if each gallon of paint covers 75 square feet?" can easily do "10*?=100." Hint: don't use x. X is confusing as shit. Use question marks, since they'll have seen those representing what amounts to a variable forever. If it's really a reading issue, this will work -- and it'll also work if she's just a really abstract thinker.
posted by InnocentBystander at 10:35 PM on September 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

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