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Should Elementary Schools Stop Teaching Math?

Updated on August 8, 2017

In his article “Formal Arithmetic at Age Ten, Hurried or Delayed?” Harvey Bluedorn tries to make the case that teaching math should be delayed. He suggests that children should be first taught math around the age of 10.

Bluedorn’s “Historical Perspective” goes through different eras and shows that math wasn’t usually taught until the age of 11 or later. I'm concerned about his use of these time periods because they're so different from our own time. Sure, you could probably have started teaching math at one time at 15 and easily teach the student all they need to know by 16 or 17, simply because people needed a lot less math knowledge. Now students need to know advanced geometry, advanced algebra, trigonometry, probability and statistics, and calculus to get into a lot of higher paying and high demand careers. Can we realistically teach all of these subjects well if we first introduce math at 10 or 12 or 14 or whatever is supposedly a good starting age?

It isn't unrealistic for elementary age kids to learn math like this
It isn't unrealistic for elementary age kids to learn math like this

Developmental Readiness

The point that older children can learn math more quickly once they're developmentally ready is problematic. According to Bluedorn, "most children can learn – in a few weeks – everything which they might have spent six years learning." I was at the library once and overheard a tutoring session. A woman who was about 40 was being taught basic money math. Surely this woman, who was well-spoken and well-dressed, was more than developmentally ready to learn this at the age of 40, yet she was seriously struggling trying to add nickels and dimes. I can't imagine that this woman would be able to learn k-6 math in a few weeks, simply because she was older. Based on what I heard, I think this woman would need at least a year and possibly much more to just learn basic math. Bluedorn seriously underestimates how long it really takes to build knowledge in any subject.

The author does try to address this by bringing up the case of Michelle, a 16 year old who was having problems with grammar. The problem of struggling adult learners is actually a result of having been taught too early. Michelle's early education in grammar is blamed for her later difficulties with the subject. The author states that he wanted to take a "neurological vacuum cleaner and just suck out all those mixed-up synapses that kept getting in our way." Supposedly, the girl was only struggling to learn because she had been taught too early. I wondered how much grammar Michelle has actually learned and how well she had learned it.

Learning anything new is hard, even for a developmentally ready adult. I never learned any physics or genetics in school. I've tried to learn these things as an adult. It's taken me months to wrap my head around the basics, despite not having any "mixed-up synapses" from learning "too early." The idea that you can learn something almost overnight when you're "developmentally ready" is simply not true. I doubt we would have 30 million functionally illiterate adults in this country if learning when you're older was really so easy.

The concept of developmentally ready concerns me as well. Readiness to learn something is often based on levels of pre-existing knowledge and skill rather than on limitations in ability. This explains why children from privileged families do much better academically than children from underprivileged families. Children from privileged homes are building up a base of knowledge at a much younger age. The achievement gap in schools is obvious even in Kindergarten. A child’s academic fate is often sealed early on, which explains why high quality early learning has been found to be so effective for poor children. Low income children who receive high quality early instruction are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to end up in prison. This is not to say that limitations in ability don’t exist at all. Just that limitations in knowledge can be a big factor in the ability or non-ability to learn something.

Another point Bluedorn made is that adults who hated math actually enjoyed the reasoning behind math when they had to study it in graduate school. The question is how much did their K - 6 education in math contribute to their later ability to understand and appreciate math in graduate school. Didn't their early math learning contribute to later math understanding? If these students had never been exposed to any math at all, could they really have been taught years of elementary and/or middle school math in a matter of weeks or months with full appreciation of the reasoning behind it, just because they have a greater level of understanding as adults?

School Versus Learning

The article states:

"Strong clinical and research evidence indicates that early exposure to the so-called stimulation of school often destroys childhood motivation for learning."

I actually agree with this. But I think this is more a problem of schooling itself than one of learning. Homeschoolers are often much more motivated academically than their school peers. Preschoolers have a very strong desire to learn and be exposed to new things. I think the problem is not what school's teach. It's how they teach. If a child is exposed to a long day of boring lectures and work books, they often won't have a strong desire to learn. We need to rethink how we educate young children.

A Strong Counter-Argument

Books like Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin make a strong counter-argument to Bluedorn. According to the research presented by Syed and Colvin, it takes 10,000 hours of “purposeful” practice to become an expert at something. So, if becoming an expert requires a certain number of hours, it would indicate that earlier exposure would be beneficial. Students can start clocking those hours needed to build their skills at an earlier age. The word “purposeful” is very important here. Not just any kind of practice will do. You have to learn things properly to become good at them.

Math is taught badly in the US. There's no doubt about that. It's doubtful that teaching math badly at 15 rather than 5 will really fix anything. What we really need to do is teach better rather than teach later.


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    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California


      I think what you're doing with your kids is great. But many kids don't have parents who are heavily involved in their education, so it could be disastrous for them if public schools chose to delay math learning in the hope kids would pick up these concepts more quickly when they get older. It sounds to me like you provided your kids with a great foundation for future learning but millions of kids don't get those kinds of opportunities at home.

    • profile image

      Mary 3 years ago

      I loved the Bluedorns and have followed their advice, delaying math until 10. we do talk about math in natural ways (at the grocery store with prices per pound for example, in the kitchen with measurements and cutting or doubling recipes, in games, with puzzles, etc). Buy, honestly, both my children started formal math at 10 and are able to wiz through the first 5 Saxon math books in 2 years (Saxon 5/4, 6/5, 7/6, 8/7, Algebra 1). At 12, they are in Algebra 2 and almost ready for Community College Calculus. So, I completely disagree. My daughter says math is her worst subject and my son says it is his best, but still, they both excel equally. I am schooled from preschool on (2 years old in formal private schooling and magnet public schooling) and they left me behind about 2 books ago. Serioulsy, I retained nothing from my 18 years (I have a masters) of math and my children correct my thinking we when try to reason out problems. I think curriculum sellers make a lot of money and where there is money there is all sorts of false reasoning. we all like to sell our curriculum. Money helps us pay the bills. Selling our bosses curriculum helps us keep our jobs (and our insurance and our car and our house). But, it doesn't really show much in the ultimate reality of early entry into college and the advancement of children who are allowed to invest in math naturally until the age of 10.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 6 years ago from California

      It's a very child-friendly math curriculum, at least in the early grades. I don't know what it's like in higher grades.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      I hadn't heard of 'Singapore Math'. I'll have to explore that ~ though my children are past school age, now.

      Good luck! :)

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 6 years ago from California

      You're absolutely right. Math is generally very badly taught and not presented in a way that is attractive to young children. As much as possible, the early years of education need to be as fun and pressure-free as possible. When my daughter was a preschooler, I did a two year kindergarten Singapore Math program with her. She loved doing it.

      I homeschooled her last year through a public school program. She hated the math. I had to force her to do it. So, for first grade, I have switched her to a different public school program that will let me choose the curriculum. I will go back to Singapore Math.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Very interesting!

      I think that children will learn, as and when they are ready, provided the information is there for them to study, when they need it.

      The problem about teaching them Maths ~ or any other subject ~ when they are very young, is that classes are forced upon children, who would rather be doing something else ~ like playing out in the sunshine in summer, or in the snow in winter. They might even just want to get on with some other schoolwork, in which they have become interested.

      But children have absorbent minds and will pick up a lot when they are ready ~ especially if the information is presented in an attractive manner.

      I was extremely impressed with the Montessori method of enabling children to learn. Dr Montessori's books are fascinating.

      I have done some home schooling. Sometimes it is the best, or even the only, way.

      Schools need to teach Maths ~ but maybe they need to learn how to do it right, first.