Mathematics Tuition - How To Help

It is difficult to make this both brief and useful. However, I really wanted to give parents/guardians some broad ideas, with a few specific examples, with respect to the approach to helping our student. I have also given downloads to two much longer publications which describe approaches to helping in more detail. There are also several leaflets which you might find useful on the downloads page. I hope that what is below can give you a start and is the basis to be inventive and think of appropriate activities according to the student’s level. 

PARENTS.1: MATHS TALKE If it is not familiar to you already, let me introduce an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s poem "Elephant's Child".

“I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who:”

If I could give only one piece of advice it would be that you should keep these servants, these six great words in your mind. Simply try to start sentences with ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘when’, or ‘how’, ‘where’ and even ‘who’. Then try to make the rest of the sentence about something connected with Mathematics.

This is much easier than you might think it is!

For example, you might say, 'Which one is heavier?', 'Which is biggest?', 'What is the approximate height of that door?, ‘Why is that a right angle?’, ‘Where do you see triangles?’, ‘Which one of those tins costs the most?’, ‘How much would two of those packets be?’, ‘How could you show which shape has a greater volume?’, ‘Why is that a square?’, ‘Why is that mayonnaise better value that the other jar?’, ‘Which way home is fastest?’ Simply asking ‘Why?’ is one of the great gifts to going forward (in almost any situation!). From ‘Why is that triangle special?’ to ‘Why does food come in round, tube shaped, tins?’ At a slightly less challenging level ‘What?’ can also be very effective, particularly ‘What did you do today?’, but, much better, ‘What can you tell me about what you have learned?’ This gets easier the more you practice it. Speed, weight, time, distance, size … and much more … all of those things, and more, are a conversation about Mathematics.

It is easier than you might have thought, isn't it?

Smiling boy - top smile

Though this might scare you, it might be a surprise to find out just how much Mathematics you do know. Certainly just using Mathematical vocabulary, making the language more common and comfortable is a great thing to do, and well within the capacity of ALL parents. ‘Mathematical vocabulary’ sounds a bit frightening, doesn’t it? How about ‘Bigger than’, ‘Less than’, ‘Square’, ‘Volume’, ‘Half’, ‘One-third’ … and lots more words which you use almost every day are Mathematical vocabulary.

The really difficult bit to accept about all this might be that it really does not matter if you do not know the answers. I think it is something to do with the way that we have been taught Mathematics ourselves, which might mean that that sounds almost insane . But, really, it does not matter very much if we don't know the anwers ourselves. What will happen if you say 'I don't know'? Will you be loved less? Very likely you will be loved more for sharing, for being honest. It does not matter if you do not know the answers yourself. As long as you start a discussion about Mathematical matters, it is then perfectly ok to say ‘I do not know for certain, I think it might be … but maybe we can find out together’. We are, after all, in the amazing age of the internet. You are also demonstrating to your our student that you are inquisitive and prepared to learn! Why not give your son/daughter or ward the task of finding out the answer and asking them to then come and teach you when they know the answer. What is important is that you have started a conversation about Mathematics.

Cheeky girl - tongue in the corner of her mouth

PARENTS.2: ATTITUDE Please encourage your child to have a positive attitude about learning Mathematics. I do not shy away from saying that it IS a difficult subject. That is the reality. However, it is probably best to avoid statements like “I wasn’t good at math” or “Maths is TOO hard.” I do not wish to encourage anybody to be untruthful, so you might say something like ‘I did not find Maths easy, but when I tried hard, and got something right, it was great’. How about (I am smiling, but only half joking) ‘I found Maths quite difficult, but I did not have a great teacher like Richard Messenger helping me’? Even subtle differences to what you say, statements with an element of help, rather than blunt negatives, can make a difference. I certainly do not think saying things like ‘You have got to do well at Maths, it is important’ or ‘Maths is easy’ are helpful. ‘It can really help you to have choices if you can try your best to do well at Maths’. Or ‘Maths is not easy, it can be a difficult battle, but when you do well it is a great feeling’.

Part of what I am suggesting is that you should simply show a genuine interest! Try to really listen to and understand what they are telling you. Do not just be there, but be truly present. Do not just be sat at the same table, in the same room, in the same car, but make your son or daughter the only focus of your attention. It is better that you can do that for just 15 minutes than to sit watching television with them for 2 hours.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in education is the power of expectations, The attitudes of parents (and teachers!) towards Mathematics have massive impact on the students own attitudes. Children whose parents show an interest in and enthusiasm for Mathematics are much more likely to succeed. If the expectation is that homework will be done, it is much more likely to be done. If the shared understanding is that Mathematics is a normal part of our lives, as we travel, cook, help with house chores, shop and (YES!) play games that helps a lot to remove any stigma.

I’ve said elsewhere that I believe in educating the whole child. Perhaps one of the most important lessons which we can teach our children is that being a good student is their job. You go to work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Their part, their job, is to be a good student. Part of the lesson is that they must also learn things that they do not think are very interesting. Things which are hard! That’s the job which our students have. To do the best they can regardless of the circumstances. It is good preparation for much of the challenges which face us alll in our lives, isn’t it?

I have found it successful to say to students that they should do the work first, then the fun is far more fun. Students have quoted this back to me years after I have said it to them. Go out with your friends before you’ve done your homework, and the work will be hovering over you like a black rain cloud as you walk round the shopping mall or sit at the sari sari. Get the work done first, there will be no black cloud, and you’ll have a smile on your face, the sun will be shining, and the fun will be more fun!

It can be difficult to justify learning Mathematics. I have never used the standard line of telling students that doing well at Mathematics will get them a better job. That is a fairly abstract concept to most youngsters, and I do not think it can be guaranteed. Though it might also be a little bit abstract, I sometimes say ‘Mathematics is the language of the world’, but I then make it concrete by adding ‘Mathematics is what enables buildings to stand up, stops bridges from falling into the river, allows a car to be driven, a plane to fly, computers to be useful …’. I have even been known to say that it is right, that a lot of what you learn in Mathematics at school, will not be obviously and directly useful in your life, BUT Mathematics will teach you WAYS OF THINKING which will be useful each and every single day.

Smiling boy - good to see you

Copyright 2014 - Richard Messenger

Copyright 2014 - Richard Messenger