While policymakers, researchers and educators decide how our children learn math, parents don’t seem to be anywhere in the mix. Yet parents can and should play a greater role in their children’s math education. The problem is that most parents simply don’t know how. This situation is complicated by the fact that many parents struggled with math themselves, making it more difficult for them to help their children and often resulting in their inadvertently passing on their own math phobia.
One of the best things parents can do to improve their children’s math literacy is to regularly expose them to practical applications of math at home. This is not “teaching,” per se, as much as it is helping them develop mathematical reasoning on their own. What students observe, discover and learn outside the classroom can often benefit them more than what they learn in class. The former tends to be practical and applicable in real situations outside academia; the latter often focuses on the theoretical and the abstract. Parents can help merge these two realms.
The most important thing is daily mathematical reasoning. Early education experts stress reading to children every day, and math should be part of a daily regimen as well. Since most parents use math in some form every day, they should be able to help their children develop mathematical reasoning without going too far out of their way to design lessons or learn more math themselves (although this certainly helps if parents have the time). Here are a few ideas:
Estimate, estimate, estimate
When grocery shopping, estimate how much all the groceries will cost. When driving, estimate how long it will take to get to your destination. When you’re on a road trip and you can see the road miles ahead, estimate how many miles away the furthest point is (and use the odometer to check your guess). You can make this a contest; whoever is closest to the actual amount gets a prize!
Read the news
The news is filled with statistics, all of which must be taken in with a critical eye. Students should know the source, year, sample size (if applicable) and methodology used to find these statistics. This isn’t to say students should conduct a research study of each news article, but they should at least be aware of these vital pieces. This also helps them remain up to date on current affairs and become informed citizens and critical thinkers.
Be financially savvy
When you’re grocery shopping and there are multiple brands for the same product, look at the price per ounce (usually in small letters at the bottom of the price tag). Have your children get their own checking and savings accounts and regularly save 30%. (They can do this at age 14. I recommend an ATM card – as opposed to a debit card – which allows them to make purchases at limited locations as well as withdraw from ATMs. I also suggest turning off overdraft services to ensure transactions won’t go through when there are insufficient funds; this will avoid overdraft fees.) They can keep track of their account using mobile and online banking. This way they start learning financial responsibility (arguably one of the most crucial applied mathematical concepts!) and are forced to regularly practice estimation (always be aware of how much is in their bank account), percentages (spending/saving) and basic arithmetic. Finally, have your children (ages 10+) try to fill out the basic tax forms. Younger children will probably need more assistance, but they can do it. This is a practical application of basic arithmetic.
Chess, poker and Monopoly are great games for developing mathematical thinking. In chess, there are many options for where to move. Players need to predict their opponent’s best moves and calculate responses. As players get better, they think several moves ahead. (Grandmasters can think more than twenty moves in advance!) Chess helps with calculation, prediction, strategy and analytical thinking. Poker is great for developing a sense of probability. Calling, raising, folding, bluffing are all decisions that should be based on the probability of the player’s cards being better than the other players’. Monopoly is a fun simulation of real estate investments and also allows for good arithmetic practice.
These are just a few suggestions, but mathematical opportunities arise everywhere, all the time. Parents and students should always keep their eyes out for a chance to utilize math concepts. When doing any calculations, avoid using calculators (unless a mathematical problem involves a complex decimal, square root or other calculation that can’t be accurately derived or estimated in the head).
Turning everyday occurrences and household tasks into lessons not only helps students with their mathematical reasoning skills and sense of applied math, but prepares them for adulthood. I urge policymakers and other education reformers to develop more strategies for including parents in these efforts.
Katie Kormanik is an associate instructor at Udacity, an organization with a mission to provide high-quality, low-cost university courses online, and a mathematics education research consultant for Math inquiries Project, a non-profit that focuses on Algebra education. Katie graduated from the University of Utah in 2010 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and economics, and received her master’s degree in International Comparative Education from Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter (@KatieKormanik) and read her blog at http://turnthewheel.wordpress.com.