The great math curriculum hoax

More than any other question in the dozens of homeschooling Facebook groups and email lists I frequent, the great debates rage over “Should I use this math curriculum or that one?”

Saxon, Math-U-See, Life of Fred, Common Core, not Common Core, lots of drill, not a lot of drill, workbooks, stories, manipulatives… the questions fly, and parents heatedly share their opinions as if discussing their views on peace in the Middle East, not methods of multiplication.

The fact is, the curriculum is not what matters most.

The great math curriculum hoax

Does it matter? Well, sure. Are there approaches that work better for some students than others? Almost certainly. Is it sometimes hard and confusing to switch methods midstream, even if the current one isn’t completely meeting your family’s needs? Sure.

But the big hoax is that the math curriculum you choose will make or break your child’s chance for success in high school and beyond.

The curriculum is only as valuable as the understanding you bring to it.

If you “get” math and you can explain things to your children if they’re struggling, a straightforward method might be fine. If you struggle yourself, a method that’s written at the student’s level, with little extra explanation required, might be preferable. If your child excels at math, maybe a deeper and more rigorous approach is best, or maybe you want to minimize the “calculation” approach and spend more time on theory.

No matter what math curriculum you choose, your student will succeed if you – and I mean both of you – truly understand the “why” behind the material.

Multiplication is awesome. Hundreds of thousands of children across the country can tell you that 5 times 7 is 35. Unfortunately, thousands of those children don’t understand that if they have 6 sets of 7 items and take one set of 7 away, they have the same answer – 35.

You’ve got to get it. You’ve got to know why you’re doing whatever operation or calculation you’re doing. There’s not really a program out there that can’t teach your son or daughter the formula for the area of a circle. But why does that matter? When might you do it? And WHY is it pi times the square of the radius? There are fascinating stories out there about the discovery of just that, and when it becomes memorable and useful – well, that’s when it becomes a real part of your child’s life, not something to memorize for a test and promptly forget.

It’s hard. If math is difficult for you as a parent, it’s even harder. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to work through problems and watch video explanations yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask WHY. That’s the curriculum that I most recommend to build lifelong math skills. Whatever else accompanies that? Well, that’s up to you.

Just don’t let the curriculum get in the way of your learning!

Note: This post originally was written for the no-longer-active blog of online video learning company Uzinggo, a review partner of ours. When I was writing recently about real-world math, I wanted to reference some of these thoughts, realized they were no longer online and decided to revive them! I have one other similar post coming soon.

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17 thoughts on “The great math curriculum hoax

  1. YES!!!! I recently heard a math teacher say that when kids ask why they need to learn something they tell them “because it builds brain cells”. Seriously???? Why not teach the kids how to use the knowledge?

    • I’m that teacher. Telling a kid they need to learn the pythagorean theorem so they can build a room with square corners does not work for 99% of the kids in my classes. And seriously, what do you tell a kid when that ask why they need to know that the square root of 2 is an irrational number? They all need to build brain cells, so what I tell them is even if you never use the math we learn, you will use the brain cells that you are building today.

      • I appreciate that view, but I feel like it kind of answers the wrong question. Why doesn’t it work for 99% of the class? Because – and this isn’t any one teacher’s fault – they’ve come to whatever point they get to your class at without any understanding of application of facts. That’s an endemic issue and, let’s be honest, not one any one teacher can completely address, though I appreciate any efforts in that direction.

        But as homeschoolers, choosing curriculum for one child, OFTEN who is home-educated from the start, that situation just doesn’t need to happen. Children can be taught from the time they can count how things “work” in the real world.

        And when the harder questions come, like why does it matter that the square root of two is irrational, those are a ton of fun! That matters because irrational numbers are amazing! They do things that rationals can’t, and without them, we’d have a pretty messed up planet! Does it matter what the square root of two “is?” Not as much. But it matters that a child can know that 1×1=1 and 2×2=4 and 3×3=9 and GRASP that the square roots of 2 and 3, 5 and 6 and 7 and 8, in between there, are somehow going to be different than the square roots of 1 and 4 and 9, because there aren’t whole numbers that square into them. That’s the kind of conceptual grasp that is so lacking in so many curricula. (And it’s not just math – that’s equally true for history and science and literature and many other programs.)

        But does it play out that way in the classroom? Honestly, I can see why not. Here in Pennsylvania, our PSSAs are not built to measure understanding, just rote recitation. And our teachers are judged based on those scores.

        That’s why I’m so happy that we have the freedom to homeschool!

        • Thank You! This right here is why I have made the change. I want to take charge of how my kids understand things and grasp the actual information and be able to get full explanation and reasoning when those questions come up and we ALL know they will come up. Furthermore, you are right as well that this is not just a math issue. I have seen it with my kids across all subjects.
          There is no in depth explanation as to “WHY” the information they are given is needed. It is literally just forced in front of them.We as parents and facilitators understand, its all about the money. Which is the absolute worst way to gauge anything in life. It is a sad world in which we have to quantify an education based on a dollar figure.

        • I’d wager the reason for the current system rewarding primarily rote memorization is linked with the required standardization of the public-schools. If you need an approach to stuff knowledge into all your students, and it takes less effort and money on your part to simply make a “one-size-fits-all” approach, your approach will cater nearly primarily to the least common denominator of ability in your students to avoid perpetual complaints regarding unfair learning curves.

          For some people, rote memorization is as far as they can go. Thankfully, they can learn how to think and learn better, but that requires individualized approaches unique to each one, and the public schools will struggle to assist each student in the personalized way they may need.

          This is why homeschooling exists. When public schools are unavailable, unwanted, or worse than the alternative, people needed to have a way to ensure their kids got an education.

  2. I’m a former frustrated student who begged for the answer to “WHY?” for years, turned classroom teacher who struggled to inspire kids to ask, “Why?”, turned shrugging teacher and homeschool mom. The system only cares about speed and scores. Mandates dictate that everyone learn the same way at the same pace and you know it’s not going to change when kids beg you for a worksheet “to get it over with” instead of taking the time to work through the “why”. Luckily, now I can take the time with my own child.

  3. I am the homeschool mom who says, “if my kids understand the how and why, they can use the calculator.” I do this because my kids already understand the concept of long division, but in all my 45 years, I’ve yet to use long division one single time in the real world. Before I taught them multiplication, I taught them grouping. NOBODY taught math this way to me back in the 70’s, and I absolutely hated math.

    One of my boys learned to add and subtract while playing card games. “How many cards do I need to have the same number of cards you have?” They learned to build a fence in “third grade.” They had to measure, figure what materials they would need, then have to estimate the cost AT LOWES… not in the classroom. We learned about liquid measurement in the grocery store.

    My idea of the perfect homeschooling day is building the square room (out of cardboard, perhaps), using the pythagorean theorem… I wish school did it this way. American kids would come out with a much better understanding of math concepts, and would never need to ask why.

    …and most of my ideas came from my dad who was an elementary school principal in the state of California until about six years ago. He went to a conference once where he learned that Asian kids do not start doing math until much later than American kids, and they have an edge because they are more mature and have real life experiences to relate, but also they are NOT force fed so much information by 7th grade that they’re frustrated.

  4. Ok so can someone please tell me where to get the why? Curriculum, I am useless at math but I think it is because it seemed boring then, but now I realize it’s awesome, my son is like me, he likes the why and how. I would love the why in a curriculum we could enjoy together

    • Annie, I’ll be honest – a lot of curriculums don’t focus on “why.” Our family’s “why” comes from real-world applications, so I can’t say I have a specific curriculum to recommend. Some of the resources we find most helpful are at – so if you haven’t already seen those, I definitely encourage you to check them out! I’m so glad you and your son are getting jazzed about the why in math!!

  5. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Your website is a wealth of information! I’m researching the unschooling method of teaching because nothing is working for my son. He’s 15 and failed 9th grade public school. He is smart, inquisitive and talented. They complained that he hasn’t written an essay all year, I told them he’s written 10-15 stories on and I could get them for him, but they weren’t interested. Frustrating!
    I love what you said about needing to know the why when doing math. I struggle to understand math that they teach in school because I don’t know why they do what they do and so far, no one can answer my questions. I would go on khan academy and watch the videos to better understand, but I’m still at the same point. I just can’t do math on paper. I’m a seamstress and I make my own patterns, I cook. So I know math, but I can’t write it out.

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of your website!

    • Angie, I’m so glad you found us! Please stick around and read more because your story sounds much like ours. My daughter is so smart and talented, but her ways of showing it just did not fit into the particular “box” of public school. As far as math, if you haven’t already seen, please check that out – that’s a big list of more of my thoughts on math in real life!

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