Upon arrival at our rented home in Salt Lake City I pulled out my gleaming new textbooks and set the children to wading through workbooks, tackling long math problem sets, and proving that they had learned something by dutifully passing those multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank tests.
We experienced some immediate successes. I had moved both girls back a year in math; within six weeks they were working at grade level. Since they filled up the pages of their workbooks and answered the questions on the multiple choice tests, I figured they were at least accumulating a few facts. And when school got too boring, we set out to explore the intriguing history and natural beauty of our temporary home. We were having fun; the kids were learning something; and I figured I couldn’t do that much harm in a single year.
Still, the home schooling books all advised that families could become isolated without a support group. So one evening in October I dutifully walked into still another church basement, and a meeting of the Sandy support group of the Utah Christian Home School Association.
Within minutes, I began wondering if I’d stumbled into a 12-step program. One of the co-leaders, a cheerful pastor’s wife expecting her sixth child, regaled us with an account of how she had finally kicked the textbook habit. With the enthusiasm of Prospero drowning his book, she denounced boring fill-in-the blank worksheets, basal readers, and math drills that deadened the magical mystery of numbers. She urged us to discover each child’s individual learning style. To teach through experimentation and to explore through play. To recognize that rote killed reason. Heads nodded, as one by one these homeschooling parents confessed their shortcomings and promised to embrace creativity in the future.
I sat there, stunned. This bona-fide pastor’s wife, a conservative evangelical Protestant whose religious, social and political views were rather more traditional than mine, was sounding the same notes I’d heard from the teachers we had left behind in Chicago. What was worse, at least half the textbooks that she and my fellow home schoolers were disavowing sat, barely used and barely paid for, on my shelves back home.
But she was right, and it wasn’t long before I came to realize it. Even our older daughter’s thrillingly rapid math progress — in six months she raced through fourth-seventh grade math textbooks and was halfway through Algebra 1 — did not so much vindicate traditional math teaching as reveal her personal learning style. What she needed to learn, it turned out, was a flat surface, a clear explanation of the next principle or technique, and a door shut tightly against distraction. Math made perfect sense, she pronounced irritably, if nobody insisted that she try to figure it out with little colored rods.
The little colored (Cuisenaire) rods, on the other hand, helped my other two children visualize math and clearly sped their progress. My younger daughter tackled math puzzles. My son sang skip-counting rhymes to learn his multiplication tables. I threw out the problem-set heavy Modern Curriculum Press math books and bought a hands-on, inductive problem-solving program called Miquon Math. To quote the publisher’s promotional materials: “For 30 years, the Miquon Math Materials have offered children a friendly invitation to the world of mathematics. Based on the belief that mathematical insight grows out of observation, investigation, and the discovery of patterns, the six workbooks of the Miquon Math Materials lead children through an exploration of mathematical relationships.”
That “thirty years” was a dead giveaway. I was forty years old when I first ordered these books, and as soon as they arrived I knew what I was looking at. This was the New Math that had snuck into Mrs. Nail’s fourth grade classroom at Spring Mill Elementary School in Indianapolis in 1964. This was the math that appeared, according to solid empirical evidence, to have tanked math test scores from coast to coast. I loved it, and went on to use it for years.
Within one year of homeschooling I was more than halfway reconverted to progressive education. My children learned history from reading “whole books.” We studied geology at roadbed cuts and art in museums. My younger daughter, when asked whether she liked homeschooling, would invariably answer that the best thing about homeschooling was doing math in her pjs. I learned not to wince.
Okay, so my kids also diagrammed sentences, memorized Greek and Latin roots, and learned a little formal logic: activities that had fallen out of favor in most “real” schools. They studied the Bible and world religions. They wrote lots of essays. They read. And read. When, as entering ninth and tenth graders respectively, my daughters submitted portfolios of their work to West High School’s International Baccalaureate program, they were admitted and went on to do well.