Today I finished *Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics* by Liping Ma. I’ve been putting in a fair amount of effort all this fall to make sure I”m doing a good job with math education for my children. I don’t actually think that math is the most important part of their education but I think it is the component they are least likely to pick up on their own without consistent, diligent effort. And, given the genetics on my husband’s side of the family, I’d hate to pre-emptively stifle a budding math genius by short changing their education.

I am not a “math person.” I excelled in math, at least according to my report card, until eighth grade. Then I was put in accelerated math. I don’t know if I just wan’t truly up for it or was the victim of poor teaching or what, but I struggled and slogged through four of my last five years of math (I aced geometry but I was taught by an awesome teacher who used an inductive approach which is, maybe, called the “discovery” approach these days). I was allowed to drop out of AP Calculus halfway through the year and, except for cramming later for the GRE and LSAT, that was the end of my math career.

We use Singapore Math at home and it’s been mostly a great experience for the whole family. I am amazed at how much I have learned and how much deeper my understanding of really basic math is after teaching Singapore for a few years. I thought I must be a true dunce for feeling this way until I read Liping Ma’s book.

The book is a study comparing the mathematical knowledge of US and Chinese elementary math teachers. There is an introduction, one chapter each on a single math topic, and a few concluding chapters. The topics examined are subtraction with regrouping, multiplying 3-digit numbers, dividing fractions, and the relationship between perimeter and area.

The book was, on the one hand, really embarrassing. The US teachers were, on the whole, so amazingly incompetent, that I found myself cringing as I read. Their mathematical understanding was worse with each chapter while the Chinese teachers would spout off paragraphs of articulate, well-reasoned, mathematical discussion for every problem. On the other hand, it was encouraging to see that, owing almost entirely to having taught with Singapore for a few years, I was as competent as the very best US math teachers in the study. I should say, as a disclaimer, that I don’t generally read a lot of these types of things. Quite possibly, much has changed in American math education since this book was first published in 1999. But the mistakes and pitfalls highlighted in this book are worth avoiding. And the skill and mathematical agility of the Chinese teachers is worth emulating.

I can’t point yet to any big takeaways for me from this book. It’s not designed as a manual. But in the conclusion the author does note that Chinese teachers are able to achieve what she calls a “Profound Understand of Fundamental Math” because they are constantly learning and studying the material–even the material that seems like it should be “too easy” by now.

I’m thinking of looking for a follow-up book for my own math enrichment but, for now, I feel very validated in my choice of curriculum and I am looking forward to learning with my children as we explore math together.

This is a short, but fairly dry read. I recommend it to any teacher of math, whether at home or at school. The newest edition is rather expensive but some careful hunting turned up a used copy for $4 on Amazon. Search for the 1999 edition if you are interested.

on January 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm |GingerSo good to see you here Susan. We do Singapore too and really enjoy it. My mind is spinning at the thought that Miles will be done with the elementary books in about a year! Last year we also tested out a series of books called Calculus without Tears. The author is wildly passionate about how fun and interesting Calculus is and wrote the books so that level one is appropriate for a 4th or 5th grader. My plan was to do a lesson once a week or so, but Miles begged me to to one almost everyday. He’s midway through the 2nd of four books now and has slowed his pace to once or twice a week, but he still gets very excited about it…always a good thing when it comes to math lessons.

on January 12, 2013 at 10:29 pm |sjohnston522That is great to hear, Ginny. We supplement with the Life of Fred books for something fun. I’m really enjoying how he introduces “advanced” concepts at a kid level. Joseph is sure that high school math is going to be loads of fun. I will definitely look into that series. Despite my recent advances in math, I still run everything by Eric and we’re talking about amping up Joseph’s math pretty soon. I think I’ve been going way too slow with him.

on January 13, 2013 at 8:28 pm |AngieSusan, it is good to see you back here! I tried to the 52 books last year, but like many of my resolutions, I failed by about the third or fourth week. I too very much enjoyed Liping Ma’s book.