Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Charlotte Mason Math Teacher

The first thing to learn from Charlotte Mason about choosing math curriculum is that a good teacher matters more than the curriculum you use.
“There is no one subject in which good teaching effects more, as there is none in which slovenly teaching has more mischievous results.” (1, 254)
“Mathematics depend upon the teacher rather than upon the text-book and few subjects are worse taught...” (6, 233)
I wonder how many of you read the above quotes with sinking hearts? There is so much math phobia in our time. Many of us had poor math teaching ourselves, and worse, have come to believe that math is just “not our thing.” On the other hand, others of us (and this was me) were good little rule-followers, thinking we were good at math when in reality we had no idea of the greatness and wonder of math.

Fear not. You can be a good math teacher, no matter how inadequate you feel about it right now. There is both less and more than you think to being a good teacher, and I think it will help to consider the specific attributes Charlotte Mason assumes or spells out about a good math teacher. I will cover one of them this week, and several more next week.

1. A good teacher appreciates the beauty and wonder of mathematics.

Mathematics is the expression of the order God built into the universe. As such, it is worthy of wonder and awe, and it is profoundly right that we should appreciate its beauty. Charlotte Mason understood this.
“We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics…” (6, 230)
"It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence, --that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law." (6, 231) 
“Never are the operations of Reason more delightful and more perfect than in mathematics. Here men do not begin to reason with a notion which causes them to lean to this side or to that. By degrees, absolute truth unfolds itself. We are so made that truth, absolute and certain truth, is a perfect joy to us; and that is the joy that mathematics afford. Also, there is great joy in standing by, as it were, and watching our own thought work out an intricate problem.” (4, 63)

It may be that you just don't appreciate the beauty of math. Perhaps it brings back old memories of inadequacy and failure. Or maybe you just don't see how the all the rules you memorized as a child to get through math ("Ours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply...") could possibly be beautiful. If this is the case, may I suggest that this lack of appreciation can and should be remedied?  Because there is truly something to appreciate here. I would recommend that you start by reading Paul Lockhart's "A Mathematician's Lament." It is not from a Christian perspective, but it will help you to begin thinking about math in a way that appreciates its beauty. Second, consider following Tammy Glaser's Captain Idea Log and let her delight in math begin to influence yours. I would also suggest that you head over to YouTube and search for math ideas.  "Fibonacci sequence" might be a good place to start. There are many people excited about math that have posted videos to share its wonder.

If you are able to find Patricia Clark Kenschaft's book Math Power, or Marilyn Burns' Math: Facing an American Phobia at your library, they may help overcome any fear of math you may have as you begin to teach your children. John Mighton's The Myth of Ability is also worth reading. (Quoted here.)

If it's any comfort, this is an area you can expect to grow in throughout your life. You do not have to understand it all to appreciate that it is wonderful. I believe that Charlotte Mason herself grew in her appreciation of mathematics in the years between her writing of Volume 1 and Volume 6. In Volume 1 she said:
“The chief value of arithmetic, like that of the higher mathematics, lies in the training it affords to the reasoning powers, and in the habits of insight, readiness, accuracy, intellectual truthfulness it engenders." (1, 254)
In other words, the most important thing about math is its usefulness in training the mind and the character. But by Volume 6, her emphasis has shifted. The value of the training math provides remains true, but it is no longer the most important thing. She has come to appreciate mathematics for its own beauty and worth, not just for what it can do for the children.
“In a word our point is that Mathematics are to be studied for their own sake and not as they make for general intelligence and grasp of mind. But then how profoundly worthy are these subjects of study for their own sake, to say nothing of other great branches of knowledge to which they are ancillary!”  (6, 232)
So be encouraged. If you don't see the worth and the glory of mathematics at this point in your life, you can grow. An openness to learning more and appreciating more and wondering more is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. It matters more than how much math you know right now or even how much math you think you can learn. Education is an atmosphere. Children learn to love the things we love in the very air they breathe in our homes. Music, art, birds and flowers, order, ...and mathematics. Wherever you are right now, whether you fear math or find it a source of joy, it is not too late to learn and grow. You can be a good teacher.

(My references are all to Charlotte Mason's volume first, then page number. You can read her Home Education series for free at Ambleside Online.)

This post is part of the series "Choosing Elementary Math Curriculum with Charlotte Mason's Principles in Mind"
You are here >>A Good Teacher Part 1
A Good Teacher Part 2
A Method, Not a System
Atmosphere, Discipline, and Life in Early Math Education
Spiral or Mastery?
Problem Solving
Putting it all Together: Choosing Curriculum and Resources