In a 2010 article from Psychology Today, Peter Gray, Ph.D., makes the case that math should not be taught until middle school. He shares a fascinating study from 1929 that has largely disappeared from the nation’s collective radar. But the findings are stunning regarding whether or not elementary students should study math. In When Less Is More: The Case for Teaching Less Math in School he writes:
As part of the plan, he asked the teachers of the earlier grades to devote some of the time that they would normally spend on arithmetic to the new third R–recitation. By “recitation” he meant, “speaking the English language.” He did “not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or the textbook.” The children would be asked to talk about topics that interested them–experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion. This, he thought, would improve their abilities to reason and communicate logically. He also asked the teachers to give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers.
The results were remarkable. At the beginning of their sixth grade year, the children in the experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than those in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Of course, at the beginning of sixth grade, those in the experimental classes performed worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade those in the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.
In sum, Benezet showed that kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods–the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results.
I found this article especially fascinating as I have an almost seven year old daughter who already dislikes math. By math I mean formal math. She has no problem making elaborate constructions with Tinker Toys or figuring out how to evenly divide the cookies. She will decide to measure things on her own. She will clean your clock in Uno. She effectively uses practical math when it makes sense in her world. But like many right brained children, formal math (especially memorization) is not her cup of tea.
I have mostly backed off from math up until this point. We do bits of things, but not a lot. This year I was going to try doing more math (since I’m feeling guilty), but I’m already seeing this is not going to be the year either. I bought the first book of Life of Fred to use this year after reading so many glowing reviews. She hated it. (Anyone need to buy a copy?) She said she would much rather do the worksheets we were doing last year.
I continue to feel the unschooler in me begging to be given free reign. Somehow I can’t get past my personal hangup that it is just irresponsible to home educate that way even though I know that isn’t true. I observe many unschoolers doing spectacular things and admire how they educate their children. I’m just not able to personally make that final leap (yet). But as I work that out for myself, one thing is certain.
I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that much of what children are asked to do in the elementary years is busy work (often developmentally inappropriate) designed to keep them occupied until they are far enough along the conveyor belt to really begin their formal learning.
Edited: This article is referred to below in the comments: Formal Arithmetic at Age Ten, Hurried or Delayed?