Part four: Home education? Help!

Maths counts too!

Artillery Row

So by now you’ve been home schooling for a couple of weeks. You’re cracking on with The Body Coach and free concerts from the Berliner Philharmoniker. You’re likely half-way through The theory and practice of oligarchal collectivism while making outstanding progress on the lute. Now you want to get the children going on mathematics. It’s going to be a vital lock-down skill. After all, if, unlike Boris, you don’t have your own “magical money tree,” you’ll need to carefully manage your budget. And you’ll need to calculate how much of your day you’re now allowed to spend outside – a daily walk so politically defined that we might properly call it a “constitutional.”

We use maths in so much of life – from baking to budgeting.

Proficiency in maths is a fundamental skill that is so much more important than numeracy. Charlotte Mason, the Victorian educationalist, believed that the chief value of maths was its training in habits of “insight, readiness, accuracy and intellectual truthfulness.” She was right. We use maths in so much of life – from baking to budgeting. Get your child involved in everyday home activities, and maths will come alive. Younger children can use manipulatives like cubes, beads and pattern blocks. Take a look at the ideas for open-ended play that you can find on The Imagination Tree – including this list of maths prompts with inexpensive manipulatives that you can find around your home. Play is a brilliant way to learn mathematical skills, because children who play make discoveries for themselves.

But what if you or your children find maths hard? Games bring families together and make maths fun – games like Shut the Box, Sum Swamp, Dominoes or Q-bitz. Make your own shapes with masking tape on an old cotton square. Or use screens: take a look at free resources like Hit the button, and invest in Doodle Maths to have your children reinforce key skills. Sing along to the huge number of Youtube videos that will help your children learn times tables. Remember read-alouds: younger children will love these titles while older children will be excited by Murderous Maths or the Sir Circumference books. If maths really isn’t your strong point, enlist the help of Carol Vorderman, and find explanations of key concepts on the wonderful Khan Academy. Maths can be hard, but stick at it, and your efforts will eventually add up.

Proficiency in maths is, of course, a key achievement in primary education. And, when it comes to teaching maths, schools in the United Kingdom perform pretty well against the international average. But some education systems do much better. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment compares the achievements in a range of subjects of 15 year olds across the world. In 2015, when the OECD measured global mathematical proficiency at 494, the UK results came in at an average score of 498, while Singapore topped the list with an average result of 564. The meaning of these results is staggering: the average 15-year-old in Singapore was working at the level of the average 18-year-old in the United States. Other countries are learning their lessons. In the most recent OECD report, the average UK results for maths had markedly improved – probably because we’ve adopted methods similar to those of the world leaders. The UK results are uneven – students in English schools return better scores than those of students in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. But still – it’s an improvement.

You can take advantage of it too. The principles that underlie this system were developed in the 1980s, when the Singaporean Ministry of Education began the experiment that propelled its children to the top of the global rankings. Their principles were adapted by an American textbook publisher, and were adopted by schools and home educators everywhere. “Singapore Maths” textbooks might be expensive – but they are worth every penny.

But – your older children might ask – exactly how much is a penny worth? And why do pennies buy less than they used to? These questions move into other disciplines, including economics, and they show how maths raises issues that go far beyond numerical skills. What is money? Where did it come from? What happens when banks print more of it? If banks can print more money, why can’t we? Does inflation make us poorer? These questions have become quite urgent. Why has the coronavirus pandemic created a “central bank emergency”? And why is the price of gold soaring towards record highs?

Proficiency in maths is, of course, a key achievement in primary education

Despite its title, Richard J. Maybury’s Whatever happened to penny candy? is a really accessible read-aloud that explains the fundamentals of economics – and is ideally suited to upper primary school children. Maybe your children have noticed that some things – but only some things – are unexpectedly more expensive. Why has that happened? What is profiteering? And why might governments want to persuade us that it’s wrong? Strange things are afoot. We’re watching governments that were elected as guardians of the free market suddenly compel factories to produce essential goods. Who gains from this kind of economic planning? And to what kind of society might it lead? But be careful – if your children get the bug for Austrian economics, they might enjoy Hayek’s The road to serfdom – in cartoons.

So if you can’t print your own money, are there any other ways to make it? There are – and Gary Paulsen’s Lawn boy is a great little story of a budding entrepreneur. But many of the jobs of the future are likely to need a bit more in the way of tech. The skills in logic that underlie the study of maths support the development of skills in coding. Younger learners can get started with Tynker, while older children might enjoy Scratch. And, when you’re at it, why not get them started on chess?

So maths raises important questions about the structure of our society. And maybe it raises bigger questions still. Think about it. 1+1=2 is true in all times and places: it is eternal, ubiquitous and immutable. You can’t stop 1+1 from equalling 2: it is omnipotent. The sum is transcendent, and governs everything. It is immanent, and controls the actions of the tiniest properties. Why might that be? Could the simplest claim in maths suggest that something – or someone – lies behind it?

Maths counts for so much – numeracy, economics, politics, and maybe even theology. Maths is worth the effort.

And, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. That’s four attempts, by the way: you’ll need to count at least to four if you want to learn the lute.

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