Sunday, September 19, 2010

What is a "living math" dropout?

To: Jimmie and homeschoolers who are interested in Charlotte Mason "living math,"

I read an interesting blog entry over at Jimmie's Collage entitled "Living Math Dropout." I've thoroughly enjoyed some of Jimmie's past math entries (check out this one on positive and negative numbers) so her revelation surprised me.

But then I started thinking...  What is really meant by "living math?" And what does it mean to teach that way? (BTW, I used to think the Charlotte Mason term was "living math," but I've since learned that Mason never used the term in reference to math...she only used the term "living books." The phrase "living math" has actually been copyrighted by a business owner. I'm using it here only because it was the title on the original blog entry.)

According to Ambleside Online, in a Charlotte Mason math education...
"...the ability to reason is emphasized over "working sums", so emphasis is placed on story problems and working with numbers that are within the child's comprehension, therefore, a manipulative-based instruction is desirable."
Hey!  I do that!!!

But, but...I use a curriculum. In the homeschool "living math" (Charlotte Mason) movement, it seems like good math teaching is often defined by the lack of curriculum. Yes, real books. Yes, real games. Yes, "real life" situtations. But no curriculum. Which, I suppose, makes me a "living math dropout." Or does it?

Most homeschooling parents were taught math with textbooks. Algorithms. Drill and kill. Memorization. It made a lot of us math phobic. (See Math an American Phobia--great read!--by Marilyn Burns. I can certainly relate.)

But here's the thing...while there are many curricula that still teach the "old way" (the way we were taught...I guess that makes us old?? ;) ) there are some that teach completely different, doing just as Mason advocated, emphasizing reasoning, problem solving and manipulative based instruction.

I first learned that there was an alternative when I landed a teaching job in a third grade classroom. As a new third grade teacher I was "tutored" through the math curriculum with a district math specialist who came into my room each week and walked me through the upcoming week's math lessons. We used manipulatives, exploring multiple ways to solve problems. I can't begin to tell you how many times she said, "Can you show me another way to solve that problem??"  This was TERRIFYING for me in the beginning! There is more than ONE way to solve a problem???

You've got to be KIDDING ME?!?!?!!!!!

The emphasis was no longer on memorizing algorithms or drill and kill, but on mathematical thinking and problem solving (and not the problem solving that sounds like "when a train leaves Chicago at 55 mph" either!) I learned to use math strategies, read real math books, and use real activities to explore mathematical concepts.  Real, "living" the context of a published curriculum!

When I first began homeschooling ten years ago, one of my first concerns was math. As I mentioned, I've certainly experienced moments of math phobia in my past, so I didn't want to make the wrong choice in picking a curriculum. We tried several. But nothing reached the level of engagement that I'd had with my third graders. So I searched. And found a very worthy curriculum. I do intersperse other games and living books just because I love to find and use them, but not because a great, non-textbook, "living" curriculum isn't available.

I'm not sure I know what homeschoolers mean when they say they exclusively do "living math." (And, again, I'm talking about the Charlotte Mason concept in reference to Jimmie's blog post, not the trademarked term.) I think it would be very hard to ONLY use real books, games, and experiences...making everything up yourself. Very hard. I admire those who appear to do it well.

Truly yours,

Perhaps another "living math" dropout. Who uses "living" curriculum!

I may be kidding myself. But I really think Charlotte Mason would approve! :)


  1. I read the post and am glad you decided to post about it. I am a "living" math person as well but I do believe in practicing and memorizing facts. I've tutored kids who were taught several ways to solve problems but then get stuck when actually doing the computation. You need the computation just as much as knowing how to solve problems. In the real life situations where kids grow up bartering at a young age, they learn to do complex computations in their head that can be impressive to our standards in school. I like to believe that it can be accomplished through hands on games. If not, I would turn rote memorization of facts into a game. But in the end, it's all a matter of words because my grandmother wrote out the entire times table on a large piece of paper and hung it on a wall. She asked me to memorize them and I learned short cuts by discovering there were patterns. So, in the end, I used my own reasoning skills to help me memorize facts I needed to learn. I think our school system tends to go to extremes where they say it HAS to be one or the other. Personally, I don't think they can be separated. One who is able to compute quickly in their head can also solve problems better.

  2. It's a very interesting post. I am curious to learn what curriculum you use. I am a little amused and concerned with the way Americans approach math as something scary, but I was educated in the former Soviet Union in the school for mathematically gifted. Needless to say, we revered math, and our brains were stretched pretty far with various activities and math contest. I have to say that out of all curriculums I looked at so far the closest that came to the approach of my childhood is Singapore Math.

  3. so what curriculum do you use? I, too, use a curriculum and then add math games, math books and use Julie's Living Math to get the history of it all. We are new to homeschooling and starting with the beginning of time for history using Simply Charlotte Mason's Genesis thru Deut & Ancient Egypt study. I'm combining that with Cycle 1, Unit 1 from Living Math(though I will stretch out the 4 units to coordinate with the SCM guides of which there are 6) hoping to get through it all in 5 years! This will put my oldest son at 10th grade and we'll start over with the younger ones but he can do a government unit for 10th grade and then spend 11th and 12th refocusing on a time period/region of his choice using a more in depth curriculum with a stronger writing focus. Oh and my kids often ask, "is it Living Math day???" meaning games and reading and less pencil/paper work!

  4. Fantastic post!

    And thanks for the link love. I am not a natural math teacher. It comes hard for me. And so my math philosophy is constantly evolving. I appreciate your insights on the math issue.

  5. I use a mixture of a lot of things. I use Math on the Level to determine what categories of things to work on and then we use mostly games and manipulative math to learn them. Some word problems.Some "living" books. This is until they reach about 7th grade and then I bridge over to a curriculum -Videotext.

  6. We LOVE Math on the Level, great K-8th program that allows you to move around concepts as the child is advanced enough to comprehend them and uses games, living books, real life to teach the concepts.

  7. This is a great blog post~
    We have used a workbook in the past because of MY lack of confidence. Over the summer, my boys wanted to back to our old way with 5 a days. I bit the bullet and bought Math on the Level this year.
    I bought it simply for me as a guide and then we are doing the 5 a days, living books, real life math, and letting my boys take the lead to an extent. We are also playing all kinds of games! Cooking will be a big part of math this year-go figure! LOL
    I think the "living math" phrase can also mean child lead and teaching to the child as opposed to letting the workbook lead what and where the child learns.

  8. Yes, wonderful post. I guess that's why I always call myself a 'non purist CM'er' or a non purist 'living math'.
    We don't teach from and to the textbook, however, I have curriculum (MEP, a public school math set of books that they were throwing at my friend's school), those are simply an orientation to me, something I look to see concepts to be explored, played, taught...I'm not a slave of curriculum, but hey, if I get some for free I like to peruse and see that the concepts repeat, that they are presented in different ways, that helps me to wing it, and to make it living...though, as you said so eloquently if there are those who just do strictly "living math" in the sense you specified I admire them too, and reading Julie's post, not even her does that 100 percent, LOL.
    Thanks for your posts, I love your blog btw.

  9. The longer I teach, the more I think it is a constantly evolving process. Homeschool can be tailor-made to suit individuals and learning styles and especially in maths, a 'good fit' is vital. What works for 1 child may not appeal to the other. Mixing methods and ideals is not "dropping out" - it's FINDING out! :)

  10. Interesting post! Yes, the "living math" term was never used by Charlotte and she said a lot about the teaching of mathematics - an awful lot for those who are willing to dig. For me, it goes back to treating the child as a person. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know when a method or text does not respect the learner. Thank you for all this food for thought.

  11. hmmm. interesting post. I agree with you that it is unfair to say that someone could be a 'drop out' especially of something that has such a loose definition as 'living math'! I think when Jimmie said that, she would be referring to category of living math purists who really want to dump a curriculum altogether. Which is fine for them, if they want to spend all their time figuring out activities and games to complete the math requirements, go for it! But I don't have that kind of time (I discovered) and there are quite a few things I want to spend a good dealof time concentrating on, so letting a curriculum cover math is OKAY with me!

    I do appreciate having the resources to add in contextual activities and the history of math and games for making it FUN! That has been life saving for us!

    IS there EVER anything set in stone for homeschoolers? I think not. We all can make quite a wide variety of methods work out into quite a comprehensive education... all in our own personal family style! I just LOVE that.

    Freedom! Hooray!


    Thanks for this thoughtful post ;)

    amy in peru


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