Friday, March 20, 2015

Algebra for Kids

There is an App that teaches algebra visually in the form of a game.  It is called DragonBox.  My son and I got quite far with it when he was 8.  I think it's more appropriate for 8th graders even though it's very easy to play.

Last summer, when he was 9, we did an algebra workbook.  He was comfortable with variables and understood the most common equation transformations.  He used the rules properly, but struggled a bit.  It went well, but he internalized none of it and he retained very little.  It looked like a failure.

Recently, we've been doing geometry  in preparation for Middle school.  Again, he can do it if computer time is on the line but doesn't really appreciate what he is learning, if in fact he is learning it.  It's going slightly better than algebra because to solve geometry problems one has to use arithmetic and this gives arithmetic some meaning.

Today I asked him to do a page of math so we could watch history on the American Hero's Channel.  (Any time this channel is on, we all stand there mesmerized.  Best channel ever.).  He was taking too long answering questions like this:  "15 is 5/8 of ___ " so I suggested algebra.  After getting a blank look, I showed him how to write the equation, multiple both sides by 8/5, cancel equal factors, and the answer just falls out.  The light bulb finally went off.

The problem with the US math curriculum is that the first 5 grades teach tools with very little useful, important application.  This is a disaster for math and the reason why our colleges have almost no math majors.   Computer science is taught in reverse - first create video games, and secondly figure out the tools needed to make them work.

Tonight my 10 year old found a vital use for algebra - finish his boring workbook page so we could watch TV - and his math skill set jumped 3 years.

I think computer programming might be the solution to this problem, but again my efforts to date have been somewhat unsuccessful because 12 or 13 might be a better age to tackle bigger problems.  Should I just abandon math until then?  This is a problem I need to solve.  This is as bad as the reading drought that hits little boys between 3rd and 4th grade.

Regardless, I've noticed a change in the last few weeks from memorizing and learning facts or tools to thinking and learning.  In the Classical Education, this is the definition of the shift that takes place around age 11 for most kids.  Ideally, I could retire from my blog, but there is a 6 year old who just got all 30 problems on his subtraction worksheet wrong.  I didn't know he was capable of getting a math problem wrong.  Looks like I have more work to do.


  1. Hello - I am reading some of your posts about cognitive skills and math reasoning/thinking skills. I am desperately looking for some good workbooks. I have building thinking skills book and my little ones are doing a page a day but many nights I get "I don't like this book" response and thinking about alternating with one or two more once in a while. Any thoughts about mathematic reasoning, mind benders, can you find me or something else out there that you'd recommend?

  2. It depends on how old your kids are. I'm assuming 5-7 years old. At this time, I used Spectrum Math Grade 1/2 or EDM grade 2. I also recommend Kumon word problems, which I like a lot. With the exception of Kumon, there isn't a lot of math reasoning going on in grades 1 and 2. Pick the alternative book your child likes the least and building thinking skills will seem better. I got far worse than the "I don't like this book" response. Usually tears. That "issue" you are working through is one of the most important of all cognitive skills of all. Hang in there.

  3. Thank you for the quick response and an excellent idea that I (and other moms out there I am sure) can try.

  4. As a long time lurker on your blog, I am curious to know what is your take on abacus math/ mental math?