Friday, April 01, 2005

What is the "Difference"?

In ten years of homeschooling I've never gotten thrilled about a math curriculum. Math is something you do and make your kids do so you aren't just doing the "fun stuff" ie reading. And it doesn't work trying to make math the "fun stuff". It's just not.

A few weeks ago I was looking online for something else, and within about half an hour I had ordered a 59$ CD set of all the Ray's Arithmetic series from Primary to Calculus level. Now I rarely make homeschool impulse buys and almost never ones that run over 10$ in cost.

Even weirder was the fact that I was not disappointed when they arrived. Almost always, when some brave new recommended resource actually shows up in my mailbox, I feel a bit disappointed. Sometimes I put it away for a couple of months and sometimes it never comes off my shelf again (that's why I so rarely do impulse buys anymore, and why I prefer to be out 10$ rather than 60$).

But this Ray's series -- I'm just thrilled. Now I still have no idea whether I can use them as a curriculum or not. I have searched the web, found a Ray's Arithmetic yahoo group, and a couple of message boards. No one seems to be an expert on this series. Everyone using it has little kids at the primary level. That's usually a bad sign. It means only new people try it, and more experienced people abandon it or don't start it.

However, they are going to be worth the money just for ME. That's simply WEIRD for me and a math program.

A sample math problem from the "Intellectual Arithmetic" -- A boy gave 24 cents for a book and later sold it for 17 cents, how much did he lose ? I am giving these questions to my 3rd grader in Math Bee form. He is thrilled that I'm going back to review and that I'm letting him do all his work orally. Ray's says that it is important to base arithmetic teaching on concrete objects -- what we call manipulatives -- and that math should be oral at least in the first year or so. That's strange to me. I thought "rigorous" old-fashioned math programs required pages of abstract math facts to memorize and write out. Do my kids have an actual pedagogical point when they complain and resist these?

A definition of subtraction which I'm going to paraphrase since I don't have the book: Subtraction is the process of finding the difference between one number and another. AH! How simple and elegant! I said this to my 3rd grader and he gazed at me. "Mom, what does it mean by "difference"?" I explained. I have one jelly bean; he has two. That means we both have at least one, but he has more than that. How much more than one does he have? One more. Well, that is the DIFFERENCE.

He looked at me with widened eyes and said "Ahh." You could see the lightbulb going off. Somehow those pages of drill -- he knows his subtraction facts well -- never conveyed to him that concept.

I think what I like about Ray's, whether I end up using it as a core or just a supplement, is that it converses mind to mind with the student. Curriculums that do the mind to mind thing nowadays are usually like one of those great-uncles that think you have to rumple a kid's hair to relate to him. Or that you have to sound "cool" and call the kid "bud" and make lots of obscure jokes and move very fast. Then there's the curriculums that purport to be more old-fashioned and rigorous, but that usually seems to mean utilitarian. Just do these problems. Never mind why or what for. It's not your place, kid, to think about that.

In Ray's it seems to be assumed that learning is valuable and philosophical and that the kid will appreciate knowing the why's as well as the how's. How neat.