A conversation with my nephew, then another one with my sister a few days later, and all the recent Tiger Mom talk, got me thinking.
My sister is home-schooling my niece and nephew this year, which involves a home-school program three days at a farm, and two days of schooling at home. At home, my sister is using Singapore Math to teach my niece and nephew.
We called my nephew on his birthday, and the boys exchanged a few words about school. Gabriel complained to his cousin about boring repetition in math and other subjects, and Aidan said he didn't have that. It was quite clear who had the better schooling situation!
I don't know much about Singapore Math, but it seems to be embraced by the home-school/alternative/whole-learning set that frowns on "traditional" math learning that is criticized for too much rote learning, memorization, and repetition. But Singapore itself isn't known for its granola flexible society -- it's better-known for Tiger Moms. Is Singapore Math hard-line traditional or alternative warm-n-fuzzy?
I asked my manager about this, and he said that he was indeed raised with Singapore Math -- in Singapore -- but not until he had "the basics" down first -- which includes memorizing multiplication tables. He said nowadays in Singapore, Singapore Math methods are used in conjunction with traditional math techniques. He added that he and his wife compel their two sons to do Singapore Math twice a week at home, because the Palo Alto school district's math curriculum is way too easy! He said they're not the only parents who feel that way, and that the aggressive Jewish and Stanford-professor and Eastern European immigrant parents in Palo Alto make Tiger Mom seem like a creampuff.
So, I still don't get it. How is it that the same math curriculum is embraced by the Tigers and the Granolies?
And where does Cupertino fit in?
Tonight, Gabriel had some math homework that involved finding other ways to solve problems than just brute-force multiplication. Gabriel got stuck on the first problem, and so did I. I understood the intent, but not how to apply it to this problem. The straightforward way to solve the problem itself was to use double-digit multiplication, but Gabriel said they hadn't been taught that yet, and clearly that wasn't the intent of the problem. Maybe if we were both better out-of-the-box creative thinkers we'd have figured out the point of the exercise (and Dave did later), but to get through it, I figured I might as well just show Gabriel how to do double-digit multiplication (that is, where both numbers have more than one digit, like, 14 x12). I'm all about brute force.
This was my first foray into home-schooling; timely since I'd been thinking a lot lately about how challenging it must be. My boys are so rude and resistant about doing even the basics around the house -- how could I possibly get them to respect me as a teacher?
But "home-schooling" has a huge advantage of a tremendous teacher:student ratio. This became apparent within seconds, when I showed Gabriel how to multiply multi-digit numbers. I was floored by his reaction -- he was actually excited by it. Usually he whines and complains about math homework, but he took to this eagerly. It only took a few minutes to show him what to do, then I gave him a 4-digit x 4-digit problem to solve, and he was all over it. He exclaimed, "I learned way more from you than I ever do from this stupid homework, Mom!"
The one-on-one attention likely mattered the most, but I was struck by a few additional things. Gabriel mentioned foam cubes they use in school to demonstrate 1s, 10s, and 100s placement -- visual aids that I think are commonly used in the "whole learning" approach. So our school isn't all about hard-line learning, and the homework reflects that too.
But he had nothing good to say about these visual aids -- he explained eloquently and convincingly how all that is "stupid," and he'd just as soon get on with the regular math. He went on to complain about having to "explain his answer" on worksheets, and the worksheet content itself, which focuses on finding another way to solve a problem (e.g. if you can't do 14 x 12, can you do 14 x (10 + 2)).
Frankly, I'm with him on this. Out loud I defend the methods -- and in principle I do agree with them -- but in truth, I'd just as soon get down to the dirty too. The concept teaching likely works for most kids, but for the uber-literal among us, it's actually more painful. Perhaps it's exceptionally beneficial to us then.
I'm not cut out for home-schooling, and our family dynamic would never support it. But there are certain aspects of it I have respect and envy for, primarily around customizing a curriculum around a particular child. We've long thought that Gabriel of all kids has more specific needs, or would respond better to a more varied curriculum, and lately I've been thinking a lot about this. Tiger Mom inspired me to be much tougher about his attitude toward math tests, and to take a strict line on traditional things like his "math facts" tests (solving 100 simple multiplication problems in 5 minutes to reinforce memorization -- which we now make him do over until he gets them all right). Then my sister inspired me to think more about customizing teaching for a particular kid -- she does this every day after all.
On the other hand, part of life is adapting to the world around you, and there's a whole lot he's gotten out of school that I'd most certainly have missed. He's a really pretty good writer, for instance. He's decent at presenting things and speaking in front of groups, and gets a kick out of tossing humor in.
But there's no doubt that Gabriel would like math much better if he could fast-forward past the concept stuff -- the very material that is supposed to establish the foundation -- and get right to the problem-solving. On the other hand, maybe a kid who has no trouble doing the multiplication needs the supporting material, like how to make the problem easier to solve by reorganizing it.
How much of his enthusiasm about learning multi-digit multiplication was from the material challenge, and how much was from the one-on-one attention? It was both, but he can't fake "ah-hah" moments just because he was basking in individual Mom attention. Gabriel's talented cousin has the acting chops for that, but Gabriel doesn't. He meant it.
I could take this kid places...if I could. His enthusiasm and smiles and relaxation were contagious -- seeing him truly enjoy the lesson instead of bitterly complaining about it really struck me. It's like releasing the emergency brake and letting the car go.
But even if I could home-school, how much else would be lost along the way? He'll always have whatever gifts he was born with, but he won't always have external influences insisting he stretch the sides of him that don't come easily. I was conflicted even before kindergarten with him: should we choose his schooling to develop his strengths or weaknesses? Julian and Katrina are more well-rounded in their abilities and these questions just don't present themselves. But raising Gabriel has always been about unanswered questions.
So what is Singapore Math about anyway?!
p.s. Here's the homework problem that started all this.
A restaurant uses 14 dozen eggs each day. If the restaurant is open 7 days each week, how many eggs will they use in 4 weeks? Explain why your answer makes sense.
Dave and I both first thought this was simply found as 14 x 7 x 4. But Gabriel pointed out "a dozen eggs." So the problem is really 14 x 12 x 7 x 4, and there's no way around double-digit multiplication -- which they haven't been taught yet. Later, Dave decided that the answer was supposed to be expressed in dozens after all, which brings you back to 14 x 7 x 4. I got tired of trying to divine the semantic intent and just figured I'd show him multi-digit multiplication, which wasn't the point of the exercise, but we both liked it a whole lot better. The "explain why your answer makes sense" is what Gabriel hates the most, and I don't like it either! See, I'd make a horrible home-schooler.