The math train wreck that can start in second grade Waldorf, and certainly in other school systems too, when we teach carrying and borrowing to the students. As soon as we teach this, our students start to lose their sense of number. When we place the numbers on top of each other vertically, the students see them in a different way and begin to practice a procedure that dulls their ability to do math in their head and learn number sense. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach carrying and borrowing, but we must remember, if we are math missionaries and want to cultivate mathematical thinking in our children, we still need to get them to think of numbers in their head to avoid the math train wreck.
Mental arithmetic is a wonderful and important exercise, I would argue, all the way through eighth grade in our Waldorf schools, if we want to avoid the math train wreck. We have to teach number sense even more in today’s world because we don’t practice with numbers as much as in the past. The solution is about balancing and juggling. Right now, in the US, math education is out of balance. There is far too much emphasis on learning “stuff” and learning “skills.” I do want to emphasize that it is important to teach math problem-solving and thinking. And it’s important to bring depth. But if we can move away from teaching so much skills work and just plowing through huge text books, (1450 pages in the standard 7th grade textbook! ) we can transform how we teach math and make time for depth.
Fostering enthusiasm for teaching is also a key to avoiding the math train wreck in our Waldorf schools and elsewhere. Our goal as teachers should be to have the weakest of our students loving math. That doesn’t mean making it easy for them. We want them to come to a place of loving math because they struggled with it; they went home and they told their parents they loved math.
Do we really need contrived ways to make math interesting? Do we, as Waldorf teachers, really have to behave as if math isn’t interesting in and of itself? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be creative with it. We should be wonderful, exciting teachers, but we, ourselves, need to believe that math is interesting. We need to find a way to make math meaningful, which doesn’t mean making it easy. It’s not about our students doing well on tests. We need to make math meaningful in such a way that it feeds their soul and their development as human beings, whether they are good at it or not. They should feel that it is an important part of their education, and ultimately, they will be appreciative of its place in their education.