How to Study: 4th Grade Math is a Slalom Race

Did you watch the Olympics? In our house everyone including the dog watched, as late as they could stay up. Number One Daughter, in the fourth grade, fought gamely to make it until the end every night. Every sport was a hit; snow-boarding, ski jumping, speed skating, and yes, figure skating.

We watched all the skiing. As you might expect, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso were huge for my girls. While they enjoyed the wins, one of the more illuminating things they saw was Vonn’s problems in the slalom races, where she missed gates and fell out of the race three times.

My girls were fascinated that after four years of training her chances of medaling were gone in the blink of an eye, with one missed ski tip. It took me some time to explain, particularly to my first grader, that once she missed a gate, she wasn’t allowed to go back and go past it properly. It took some more explaining for them to work out that even if she was allowed to, it would take so long that she would finish last, or at least as last as the other women who missed gates.

This caused me then to ask Number One Daughter: how was the slalom race like school?

It took some doing, but eventually she decided it was like Math; if she missed a concept in a teaching unit, she was in trouble for the rest of the unit. And since math is so cumulative, not understanding something would come back to haunt her over and over again.

She saw this herself in third grade. Last year, she had a tough go of it in math. Her own sloppiness coupled with some very slow grading of homework assignments led to her getting frustrated with math. By the time my wife and I figured out the root of the problem, she was well and truly tired of working hard but not producing.

So a little home-schooling was in order. It went well enough after she got over her initial crankiness and by the end of the year we had her on the right track. She has continued to do pretty well this year, sticking high B’s and A’s. Her biggest problem is, I suspect, a common one for her age group: she misreads instructions because she is in a hurry and so loses points on questions she actually knows, just for sloppiness.

And she is pretty well sold that she needs to understand each concept in turn, and that she’ll need those concepts again later. Last year she was lazy about refreshing her times-tables knowledge after the summer break. This made long division an unholy pain. How do you do division without knowing your times-tables? Quick answer: you don’t. Once we drilled her on them and she was confident, division was easy. We got that gate back.

My wife famously (in our family <grin>) managed to get a math degree without ever breaking the code on what ‘fxdx’ meant in calculus. She just missed that gate, and then stumbled through the rest of calculus essentially by rote. She did it, because she is smart and can think on her feet, but it wasn’t easy, or productive. I wonder, though, how common this experience is? Probably more so than we think.

So, if your elementary student is cranky about doing the math, show them the highlights of Lindsey Vonn, and explain that Math class really is like a slalom race.

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