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Math as a Metaphor for Life

By Clay and Sally Clarkson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #28, 1999.

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Clay and Sally Clarkson


Go to the math section of my homeschool library and you will find a couple of bookshelves filled A-to-Z with math curricula. Name any recognized math program with any promise of success, and you're likely to find it among my "bought it, taught it, forgot it" books. I'm still looking for the math curriculum that is easy, quick, painless and effective. That's not much to ask, is it?

Each of the math programs I have tried has its own strengths, to be sure. But none of them seems able to provide the kind of natural ease of execution that I long for. It just seems, with all the advances in educational methods, that someone could find a way to make the hard work of math for me and my children go away. Why should we have to struggle every time there's a new concept to confront? Why can't someone figure out a way to make the concept stick without the tedium of drill sheets? Why can't it be done in ten minutes a day?

Okay, Back to Reality

After 11 years of trying to teach my children the meaning and use of numbers, I have finally made peace with math curricula. I don't expect them anymore to do the miraculous, as though my children could merely open the pages and have all the knowledge jump into their little brains with little or no effort, and certainly with no tears of frustration. I've changed my perspective about what to expect from math programs. Or perhaps I should say they have changed my perspective.

Those different math programs have unintentionally sharpened my perspective on what the reality of learning is really all about. I've come to see in a clearer way that the process of learning with my children is just as important as the product. At first, I felt good as long as my children were getting the right answers all the time. But the harder the concepts and the problems became . . . the less consistent the right answers became . . . and the more my own math deficiencies surfaced . . . the more I realized my perspective was wrong. I began to see that my focus as a teacher should be as much on the process of learning math, as it was on the product of doing math.

I began to observe that the process of working through difficult problems day after day had an impact on my children's lives. It mattered little what curriculum was open in front of them; they still had to discipline themselves to work through the pages one problem at a time. That process taught them persistence. As they struggled to arrive at the correct answers to difficult problems, that process strengthened their logical thinking skills. When they hit a mathematical wall of "I can't do this," the process of pushing ahead to understanding taught them perseverance and bolstered their confidence. When they came to me for an answer I didn't have, the process of finding it taught me humility and commitment. And that, in turn, taught my children respect for me, and for the process of learning.

Math has Taught Me, Too!

In a way, teaching math has become a metaphor for me of the entire process of home education. I find myself so often tempted to focus on the end results, the product of my homeschooling. Have I done enough this year? Have I covered enough material for this subject? Will they do okay on their achievement tests? Will they score high on their SATs? Will they be able to go to a good college? When I get focused on the product, I become tempted to find a curriculum or book that promises to produce that end result. Pretty soon, we're all caught up in the curricular grind.

I can approach the homeschool lifestyle the same way. What starts out as an idealistic vision of living and learning at home (the "product" perspective) at some point becomes a whole lot harder than I ever imagined. My children's sinful natures surface with complaining, fussing, and whining that all need constant training. They insist on eating several times a day, and wearing clothes which inevitably need to be washed and put away. The messes in the house seem to regenerate within hours of being cleaned. "This is not what homeschooling is supposed to look like!" I cry out. "Can I really do this? Do I really want to?" And I start looking for a better schedule, a new system for organizing and cleaning my house, a different support group. Surely there is something that will make me a better homeschooling mother!

A New Perspective

Like math, the answer is not a new curriculum, but a new perspective.

No matter how big and sophisticated the homeschooling movement becomes, the homeschooling lifestyle will never, never be an easy one. It will always require work and disciplined choices on my behalf - to keep teaching, training, nurturing, cooking, cleaning, and whatever else I am called to do as a homeschooling mother. That's part of the process of home education. It is part of the wonderful process of being with my children each and every day; that is the heart of homeschooling.

If all I look for is the product of homeschooling - right answers, right behaviors, right attitudes, right lifestyle, clean house, perfect schedule - I'll miss the joy of the process. The real learning is in the process of living - gently correcting my children's attitudes, helping them to be diligent in their work, talking with them about the Lord each day, being able to stop and pray at any time together, doing housework, learning to serve brothers and sisters, memorizing Scripture together, sharing life vision.

All of the things which happen every day in our home in the process of living will have a far greater impact on the heart and character of my children than how much they know or what they will score on college entrance exams. It is in the process of sharing our lives and working through the trials of life together that my children will learn the most important things. The product will take care of itself.

So, maybe math isn't so bad as I thought. After all, it helped give me a new perspective. And, in case you're wondering, my children are doing just fine in math, thank you. But even better, they're enjoying the process of learning together. Whether they pick a math book from A or Z or somewhere in between, it's not the book, it's the student that matters. It's not just the product, it's the process.

Let me close with a paraphrase from Matthew 6. You know the passage well. "What shall we teach? Or what shall we study? Or with what shall we fill their minds? For all these things, the public schools eagerly seek. But seek first together with your children His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things - knowledge, wisdom, character - shall be added to you."


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