(Laura’s note: this column ran in Wednesday’s USA Today under the headline “Answer to lagging scores? Bedtime math problems.”)
We all know we should read to our kids. But even if bedtime stories are routine in your house, when’s the last time you gave your kids a bedtime math problem? Probably never. And that’s one reason American students might struggle in a future that requires mathematical literacy.
Many parents view math as nightmarish, not the stuff of sweet dreams. But show kids that puzzling through problems can be as cozy as reading Goodnight Moon, and they may never decide that math is no fun.
At least that’s what’s going on in one New Jersey household. About a year ago, Laura Overdeck (who majored in astrophysics) began giving her two school-age children little word problems at night. She and her husband felt math “should be on equal footing with reading a bedtime story,” she says. The problems were lighthearted: If you wrapped your sister in five strips of toilet paper that are 10 squares long, how many squares did you use? When the couple’s 2-year-old started hollering for his own math problem, “we started to realize we were on to something,” Overdeck says.
A non-profit is born
Thus was born Bedtime Math, a non-profit that sends out daily e-mails with suggested math problems for “wee ones” (preschoolers who count on fingers), little kids and big kids. Overdeck aims to make the puzzles enjoyable, and doable in a kid’s head. No flash cards or anything else that invites math anxiety.
It’s a neat idea for a simple reason: “If you look at how math develops in young children, it’s very similar to how literacy develops,” says Eugene Geist, associate professor of early childhood education at Ohio University and author of Children are Born Mathematicians. Yet while public service ads implore parents to read to their babies, “we don’t really do the same thing for math.”
The reason? Chalk it up to the view that math is work and not play — an esoteric subject rather than part of the world around us. “It’s a cultural disease,” says Mike Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “It’s socially acceptable, almost like a merit badge, to put out there in a social situation, ‘Oh yeah, I was never good in math.’ Then we communicate that to the next generation.”
Links to everyday life
Shaughnessy attributes his own interest in math to his father, who worked in construction. Measuring, estimating and figuring out the slope of a roof all taught him that, as with reading, math is something you get better at with persistence. “If math were talked about in a way where it’s just part of what we do, it would have a huge positive effect,” he says. Instead of people saying “I can’t do this,” they’d be thinking as mathematicians on how to approach a puzzle in different ways.
Millions of kids who are as familiar with math as they are with brushing their teeth could bring about this positive change. Every year, the ACT reports what percentage of test takers are “college ready” — likely to earn at least a C average. The numbers are always low. But what this masks is that the majority of test takers are college ready in English (66% in 2011) and reading (52%). It’s math (45%) and science (30%) that bring the average down.
Maybe if more children grew up doing bedtime math problems, those numbers would be different. “The more math and numbers there are around a child, the more likely they’re going to like math and enjoy math and develop as mathematicians,” says Geist. We don’t think of being “good” and “bad” at speaking our native languages. Math, too, can just be part of who we are.
Laura Vanderkam, the author of the new book All the Money in the World, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.