Sunday, 16 June 2013

What IS Living Maths and How Can I Use it?

Living maths is attributed to Charlotte Mason as she referred often to 'living' books. She actually termed it the 'living teaching' of maths and it has morphed into living maths along the way. I'm really interested in it as a concept for teaching maths at home as the other CM aspects that I've adopted have worked so beautifully well. Recently I've been researching quite a bit about living maths, what that means and how to go about it and this post is a round-up of the information that I've found out and some thoughts about that!

How I came to be here.......
I've been dabbling in it for the last year and have gone on a bit of a journey.... I started out buying a stack of maths story books that I found from the living maths book list written by Mama Jenn that tallied with the maths skills outlined in the National Curriculum. I put together a few activities for each book and we read it every day and did a different activity that illustrated the maths concept in the book. The girls really enjoyed it and it was very effective for concepts such as symmetry and even place value but when I came up against multiplication, I got stuck!! That prompted me to buy a book for teachers to explain to ME what children needed to learn about maths and how they best understood it. That was a good move and I felt much more confident but it lead me on to realising that I couldn't 'teach' some of the concepts in one session and expect it to sink in. Some skills had to be practised over and over like reading does and that meant daily maths........

............which brought me back full circle to where I'd started, wondering how to do that without resorting to a dry boring workbook based curriculum that could completely turn the girls off maths. My age-old curriculum issues arose again as I looked around - they jumped here, there and everywhere - in the name of daily practise but without any seeming logic or continuity, they didn't have explanations, and they all went about it in a different order. Some used manipulatives which I was keen on but didn't fit with my philosophy on how I want the girls to experience learning. Most of them relied on the memorisation and retention of 'maths facts', Eve finds this kind of rote learning nigh on impossible which rules that route out!

I came to a few conclusions about my thinking on maths and where we are now:
  • We can't 'do it all' just like we can't with science and history either but I also don't want there to be glaring gaps that will hamper later maths for the girls.
  • The girls have very good practical maths skills using time, weighing and measuring, handling money etc.
  • They learn by themselves - I know this as they come running in to tell me that 3x4 is 12 or that 70-20 is 50..... but they aren't sure of the terminology and what written symbols mean.
  • The living maths that we have done so far has sunk in and been retained and used, most notably place value.
  • I believe that expertise builds up and stems from truly understanding the subject and seeing it's links to other aspects of life and how it can be used.
  • I want the security of feeling like we have a logical sequence and I'm not just attacking random subject matter and from our literacy approach I know that little and often builds nicely into confidence and understanding.
  • I want the flexibility to scoot ahead or to stop and expand on things that confuse or enthuse the girls.
What I found out about Living Maths........
With all this in mind I launched into my research determined to find the perfect fit once and for all! Some useful resources that I found on the way were the Living Maths Yahoo group, Living Learning Lists from the blog 'everyday snapshots', a fantastic article on squidoo entitled Charlotte Mason on Math, another by the same author called Transitioning to Living Maths and a vast amount of thought provoking information here. Because 'living books' has become a term synonymous with a Charlotte Mason style education, it seems natural to assume that 'living maths' means that maths is taught purely from books alone. Having dabbled in this method myself I am strongly questioning whether it is enough as after all, she didn't advocate teaching children the mechanics of reading by simply reading to them, although very very important, so how can we teach the mechanics of maths by reading about it to them? There must be more to it!

Charlotte Mason didn't use the term 'Living Maths', rather she referred to the 'Living Teaching' of maths. This suggests to me that she believed that maths should be brought alive for the children, and she didn't rule out any particular ways of doing that. Her recommendations followed a pattern of using manipulative materials followed by visualising those materials and methods with mental arithmetic and then moving onto written maths problems once mental arithmetic was secure. Problems should challenge the child without overwhelming them, this is important when doing maths from a CM perspective as she placed importance on accuracy and getting things right first time without retrying it, it will be up to me to ensure that I pitch things at the right level for them. Charlotte Mason believed in a solid foundation of the basics, she disapproved of a child bashing through sums and problems without a true grasp of what they were trying to do. My favourite principle of a CM maths program is that you shouldn't 'overteach', she didn't want parents to get in the way of a child's learning, this is fantastic because it gives me confidence that a well chosen pathway and well-chosen materials will do the job nicely without me having to battle my own maths insecurities to facilitate it! 

How I am approaching Living Maths.....
I found that Charlotte Mason's approach to maths wasn't that far removed from what I thought it would be and how I am planning on approaching it already. I have chosen a four fold approach this year influenced by where the girls are in their maths development, what has worked previously and what I think I can manage with a newborn and a toddler!:

  1. I have chosen The Dyscalculia Toolkit by Ronit Bird as our main spine. It is designed for children aged 7-14 and is aimed at supporting children with learning difficulties in maths..... HOWEVER I think it is a brilliant scheme for all children and it fits really well with Charlotte Mason's explanation of the living teaching of maths as it focuses on maths facts but without a heavy reliance on memorisation - it shows logical ways to get there by reasoning rather than rote learning. It also places an emphasis on understanding backed up with concrete experience of using manipulatives before moving on to mental working out and then written problems. From my personal wish list, it ticks the boxes of providing a logical sequence of small incremental steps that can be tackled at a rate that suits my children. It isn't designed to be a curriculum, but rather a 'pick and choose' selection of activities and games but as I want to ensure that the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are secure by the end of this year, I am going to use it as a curriculum, set-up in much the same way as I use The Reading Reflex. I will post more about how I'm doing that another time! 
  2. I have purchased the first book in the Life of Fred series and will be trying this out with the girls, I've read a range of reviews on it but think we need to try it out to see how it suits us. It will fit nicely into our book basket but I'm unsure of whether the 'jump about' nature of the stories will be sufficient as a standalone curriculum in the long term, although it does follow it's own sequential course building up to high school level. The tone of the stories isn't my cup of tea and there doesn't seem to be much material to allow practise and repetition which over the next year might not suit ME as I don't want to be having to prep extra things to go along with it!!
  3. The third and final aspect that I'm really looking forwards to from a personal interest point of view are living books on maths. I was inspired by this living math through history curriculum and very nearly bought it if it wasn't for a review that praised it highly but said it was pretty much a series of book lists and you needed to do many hours of prep and organisation yourself to utilise it. As they are kind enough to make their book lists freely available I chose instead to trawl through them and choose some interesting books that will tie maths to the history and science that we are doing this year, making it 'live' in terms of linking all the subjects together as a whole, which was another of my personal requirements. I am particularly looking forwards to these as my maths experience in school was limited to formulae and processes with very little enjoyment! I'm going to intersperse these with some of the living maths books that we already own, utilising the method we've found successful before of tying practical activities to them to teach concepts such as time, fractions, measurement and more.
  4. Be mindful of taking advantage of opportunities to measure, weigh, tell the time, use calendars etc on an informal, real-life basis
I haven't worked out yet how I will fit these different aspects in and there is much more to say on the subject of living maths books and the Dyscalculia resource book, but they will have to wait for another post or two, especially as I am so spoiled for choice with the book lists that I can't decide what to get! There are things I would like to bring into our maths that I simply don't have the time and capacity to achieve at the moment. I keep reminding myself that I can't do it all and neither do I have to..... we can try new things another year and I think what we have for this year is rich and varied enough! In the meantime, you can browse through my Charlotte Mason Pinterest board and my Maths Musings Pinterest board for more ideas and inspiration on teaching maths in a CM way!

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