Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My Secrets to Ace Primary School Math

It is not difficult to ace Math in Primary schools.

In fact, I think Math is the easiest subject to score above 90, even at Upper Primary levels. However, many students are let down by several important factors throughout their preschool and primary school education which resulted in their less-than-ideal grades.

It is true that children come with different strengths and weaknesses, and most people are talented in some areas and not as great in others. While I agree with this view in general, especially in the areas of arts, music and sports, I am inclined to think that this argument is flawed to defend poor Math results.

First, some background. My boys have always scored above 95 for Math, without weekly tuition. They both scored 98% at Pri 4 year-end Math exam (SA2) and Pri 6 Preliminary exam this year.

I admit my boys are above-average learners but I do not think they are gifted in Math. Their gifts lie somewhere else. I think their consistently above-average Math results (or results in all subjects) can be attributed to a few factors which I will share in this post, with the hope to inspire parents with preschoolers (what you do NOW is key) and kids struggling with current Primary school Math curriculum to find their way.

I know some will think I am blessed to have bright children, hence have no idea what struggles others have to go through. This cannot be further from the truth. I used to give tuition for 15 years to Primary school children as a part-time job, beside coaching my own kids and those of relatives (though the latter is more ad-hoc) now. So I have seen my fair share of kids struggling academically and realised what went wrong for them.

I always have three strong beliefs:
1. No one rises to low expectations.
2. Practice makes perfect, but perfection is overrated
3. Strong foundation is the key to future success.

As a parent and educator, these beliefs have tremendous influence in the way I coach kids.

If a parent or teacher sees a child struggling in Math, concludes he is weak in the subject and they tell the child during 'battle preparation' (i.e. while learning/revising for exams) that it is OK for him not to do well (to avoid stressing him out more), half the battle is already lost! By lowering your expectations, the child will inevitably be targeting to achieve less.

Some parents think since they themselves used to hate Math and were hopeless in the subject too, so perhaps the kids 'inherited their genes'. Again, this is a 'fixed mindset' mentality. To be fair, some of these parents  may have tried engaging tutors or teaching personally and watched their kids struggle before they resigned to the beliefs that Math is just an area that their kids are not-so-talented in. Still, this belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So, what can parents do?

1. Lay a Strong Foundation at Preschool Level
A paramount step to ensure your child will ease through Primary 1 and 2 Math. There is NO NEED for preschool tuition or Math enrichment. Not even Math assessment books or Primary 1 Math prep class to prepare your child for Pri 1 and 2 Math.

Prior to Primary school, kids have plenty of time to gain Pre-Math skills (number sense, geometry, measurement etc) through play and their home environment. But the key to truly understanding numeracy is to learn to apply these Pre-Math skills in a relevant manner that teaches them to make sense of their world. How do we do that?

I introduce Pre-Math skills as part of my kids' and students' inter-disciplinary thematic programme when we create lapbooks. In every lapbook, I designed the Math activities to train them in the development of flexible thinking and the ability to recognise patterns. They learnt to apply their Pre-Math skills effortlessly to analyse and solve problems. Our lapbooking activities are also BIG on training critical thinking skills, which is essential to mastering Upper Primary curriculum (for all subjects, not just Math). All these laid the foundation for the skills they need to solve Math problem sums, a common area of struggle for many Primary schoolers, especially at Upper Primary levels.

2. Mistakes and Struggles are Opportunities. 
If your child has a strong Pre-Math foundation prior to Pri 1 and is a strong reader (able to read English sentences independently and understand what he is reading), then he will have no problem with the Pri 1 to 3 Math curriculum, which lays the foundation for Upper Pri Math.

My coaching method with my kids at home:
1. I NEVER teach school curriculum in advance. I only bridge learning gaps as and when required. 
2. I use only one Math assessment book from Popular bookstore every year.
3. I rarely help them with school homework. When they struggled, I asked them to try, read their textbooks if they did not understand something and try again. Do the workings and if they were stuck at a step, I might give them a hint, but I NEVER gave the answer.
4. I expect they follow up on ALL their corrections from schoolwork.
5. I have NEVER revised their school textbooks, workbooks or worksheets with them. Whenever the school teacher finished a topic, I had them do the topical exercises in their one-and-only assessment book, which I promptly marked and reviewed their mistakes with them.
6. I do random spot checks on their school file/workbooks to have a feel of the kind of mistakes they made.

Whenever there are areas that I find recurring mistakes, that is where I bridge the learning gaps before the exams.

I like to see mistakes and I am OK for my kids to make TONS of mistakes during the course of the school year. In fact, my boys' workbooks and worksheets were sometimes full of red crosses. They could be careless mistakes or concepts that they did not get.

I see mistakes as learning opportunities and feedback for the child. They are gaps that CAN be closed. 

If we expect a child to learn and understand his Math concepts, then surely an educated adult can also learn and understand the same concepts. It only requires some time and effort on our part.

Eg. I did not learn to draw models to solve Math problems when I was in Primary school. To help me understand what my child was struggling with at first, I studied his textbook and tried to solve all those problems that he could not in his one-and-only assessment book. I did not look at the answer sheet straightaway or pass it to him to figure it out himself. I refused to do that. I tried to solve them myself, compared my workings with his to understand what/why he did not get.

There were questions that I could not solve at first encounter too. I told my boys I could not solve them too, but I would learn and teach them after I had figured them out. Over time, my boys learnt from such experiences that with some perseverance, we could solve ALL problems.

This greatly improved their faith in their own abilities, even when they encountered difficulties when a new topic was introduced in school. They believed that they just needed to reflect on their mistakes and figure out why they kept making certain mistakes.

3. Practice Makes Perfect, But Perfection is Overrated.
I do not believe in drilling for perfection. That's why I use only one assessment book. Once my kids understood a concept, I will not make them do similar questions in different books. It is a huge waste of precious time, which should be better utilised learning life skills and skills that are not taught in school or revise other subjects.

How do I assess their competency before the exams? From Pri 4 onwards, I got them to do 2 to 4 exam papers from top schools' past-year-papers as revision a fortnight before the Semester Assessments. If they scored above 95 for two papers, they did not need to do anymore.

4. Aim for the Stars
Long-time readers of this blog and parents whose kids have been taught by me will know that
~ I have high expectations of all my 'kids' (my own kids and students whom I so often referred to as 'my kids' too).
~ I believe every child has immense potential and desire to excel, regardless of their family background
~ I believe every child just needs to be shown the effective approach and he will shine once he has internalised the teachings

So I never shortchange my kids by telling them it is OK to just do their best.

That is such a vague standard which is unfair to impose on our kids. I do think many kids have no idea how much effort/time is equivalent to his or her best, so in the end 'doing their best' is at best a general gut feel.

I teach my kids that it is OK to make mistakes, but learn from them. Aim for the stars! Not just set a comfortable target. Then work VERY hard to achieve. If we fail today, try AGAIN tomorrow. Reflect on your mistakes and learn WHY you fail. Keep trying until you reach your goals. And one day, you will surely get there.

And after you have reached your goals, celebrate! And you aim HIGHER next time. 

This week, my 10-year-old came home beaming with pride. He scored between 90 and 98 for all his subjects. This is not the first time he did this well, but he was not sure if he could maintain this standard now that he is in Upper Pri. His older brother did, after all, set the bar very high, and I know that he wanted to at least achieve as much, if not surpassing his sibling.

The first thing he did after shower was to give me a big cuddle and kiss and he told me tenderly, "Thank you mama for teaching and guiding me, so I can do so well. You are right that the rewards are so much sweeter after working hard for them."

I cannot be happier for him. Not so much for the grades, though of course the grades are worth celebrating for and his hard work cannot and should not be discounted, but I am happier that he understands the important life lessons that I have been teaching them all these years.

My boys' headstart advantage began with the strong foundation I laid during their preschool years and my consistent effort to nurture a growth mindset in them. If I can do this, I believe most parents who are willing to, will be as well.

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