The Mysteries of Maths…

21 Mar

Z in riverside bar, Vang Vieng, Laos

No, Please, Not Maths Again.

“Home” schooling this week has been, I think, quite successful. Z has produced a gorgeous picture of a Mekong sunset, and a piece of descriptive writing about the Mekong which is not only highly effective but, even better, entirely U-rated.

Having sat through at least four years of parents’ evenings, listening to a selection of teachers express their bewilderment at how an articulate child who could read before he turned three will not complete a piece of writing at any length longer than a paragraph, this is a real coup.

Then, of course, there is the maths.

As per usual, we addressed this in the confined space of a bus. Since we’ve lost the maths worksheets, and Southern Laos is rather shorter on print-shops than Vietnam, our curriculum currently covers subjects I can teach myself sans aids.

“OK,” I say. “We can nail long multiplication, we can work on adding and subtracting decimals, we can do some word problems, or we can do area and mass.”

“Don’t you mean area and volume?” he says.

“Ummm,” I say. (We will, most likely, be covering science only in conversation, or as a route into writing, since he seems to know rather more science than I do, and instantly internalises and processes whatever new information I give him.)

“I know decimals,” he says.

“Really?” I say. “Did they teach you them in school?”

“No,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. “But you can’t read The Guardian without understanding decimals and percentages.”

I toss him some decimal additions and subtractions, with the obvious random zeroes. He is right. He does understand decimals. And, it appears, percentages.

I am minded to extend today’s learning to division and multiplication of decimals, until I realise I can’t actually remember how to do it and I’m pretty sure it’s not on the Year 4 syllabus.

So we do long multiplication, the type where you are multiplying multiple digits by multiple digits. I can’t seem to explain to his satisfaction why you need to add the zero to the second layer, or, rather, why you add the zero but multiply the units as well, so I try adding in another set of digits.

“Well, mum,” he says. “That’s just stupid. I can’t even do long multiplication with a two digit number at the bottom, and then you give me a three digit number at the bottom. That is completely back to front.”

“I’m trying to get you into the logic of it,” I say. “We don’t seem to be making much progress with the tens only.”

“Can’t we do something creative instead?” he asks.

I sympathise.

It doesn’t help, to put it mildly, that he has devised his own method of long multiplication. As he points out, it’s perfectly sound. As I point out, it didn’t work terribly well when he decided to work out how many hours in a year the other day. He considers this a minor technical hitch.

“Anyway,” he says. “Why do I need to learn long multiplication when I can do it in a spreadsheet or on a calculator?”

It is, undoubtedly, hard to think of a real-world context in which he will use this traditional skill.

One of the challenges of teaching bright children, particularly bright kids who are good at a subject but not particularly interested in it, is hitting the middle ground, known as stimulus, which lies between boredom and frustration.

We seem to oscillate between patronised eye-rolling on his side, “Yes, obviously I can do this equation, you don’t need to EXPLAIN it to me,” and utter despair at explanations being too complicated for his poor little brain, particularly given he is only NINE years old.

It would also be lovely if he could find wonderful views out of a bus window at any time outside our maths lessons. Or, for that matter, smell cinnamon. Hey-ho.

Anywise, once I have used the unparental, unpaedagogical and generally un-everything line, “Z, I just don’t understand how you can be so obtuse,” and realised I am in a vile temper, I take time out for a nap.

I am jabbed awake just in time to watch the cod-Swedish credits on Monty Python and the Holy Grail on his laptop. Wondering dazedly whether this is what he’s been planning all along, I tell him to switch it off as it is a school day.

On the plus side, I appear to have resolved the challenge in my sleep.

What seems to work when teaching him sequential operations, such as long multiplication and long division, is to add more layers to the sequence. This stops him from calculating the answer in his head and gets him into a sort of metronomic rhythm.

I pick a three-digit number. We multiply it by 11. The zeroes cease to be confusing. Then we multiply it by 111. The zeroes are a cinch.

We multiply it by 22. The eye-rolling begins. I brace myself for multiplying by 222, at which point the Homer Simpson voice appears.

Then we multiply it by 79. We multiply it by a three-digit number. We are away!

A friend of mine was on a teacher training programme with a gentleman whose career was cut short before it began after he compared the moment when a child achieves understanding a topic to “bursting through a hymen”.

I understand the sentiment behind the suicidal simile.

Anywise. He watched Tropic Thunder for the nth time the other night — my first — and is loving his Monty Python. I reckon that parody should be a good option for English tomorrow.

One Response to “The Mysteries of Maths…”

  1. Anne-Marie March 21, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    Result! And I’ve been going through (x-4)(2x+3) with Y11 foundation maths..Do you think we should set up a maths coaching business when you get back? V could do anything beyond foundation GCSE…
    Lots of love

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