Aristotle despises math! Okay, the original Aristotle probably loved math, but my Aristotle quite literally hates it; a fact that has perplexed me from his earliest interactions with the topic. Math always struck me as a very logical, structured, rule-oriented subject, something that should appeal to my very rule-abiding, structure-loving child. While it is true that higher level mathematics can get quite abstract and confusing, basic arithmetic is very concrete and obeys a relatively small set of rules. It also involves a certain degree of rote memorization. Following rules and possessing a computer-like ability to memorize and organize information are two of Aristotle’s many remarkable skills. If he can remember the name, type, and move set of every Pokemon ever created, math should be a piece of cake, right? Unfortunately, not for Aristotle.
I vividly remember sitting in the psychologist’s office watching Aristotle work through some pattern recognition tests when he was about four years old. I was a proud mother reveling in her child’s ability to accurately predict each pattern, and I was completely shocked and devastated when the psychologist revealed that, though Aristotle’s answers were correct, the speed with which he recognized the patterns was far, far below the average of typical children his age. Furthermore, his grasp of abstract concepts was virtually none existent.
Aristotle was fortunate enough to spend the first few years of his education in a very supportive and understanding public elementary school. He also enjoyed the attentions of some very experienced and talented teachers who were quick to identify some of his learning challenges with math and help me help him with his assignments. One thing we all noticed was that Aristotle could not complete addition and subtraction problems without assigning some sort of description to the numbers. The equation 2+3=? was too abstract for him to grasp, but if we said, “2 cats plus 3 cats equals how many cats,” he was able to complete the calculation. A number on its own meant nothing to him; it had to be attached to a physical object for him to understand it. In addition, his processing speed for math problems was abysmally slow.
Like the Aristotle of old and like many special needs students of today, Aristotle is very intelligent and has subsequently developed many of his own strategies to conquer the math tasks expected of him. Most of these strategies are something of a mystery to him (and utterly incomprehensible to me), but he is somehow able to correctly solve many math equations using his own unique numerical manipulations. He is able to perform all the basic math operations, he can execute the calculations required for many algebraic problems, and he can usually pass a math exam with excellent scores, but he has absolutely no understanding of what he is doing and cannot apply the concepts he has learned to a new, slightly different problem or an actual real-life situation.
I spent countless hours trying to understand Aristotle’s learning styles (he’s a top-down, auditory type of student) and trying to figure out what specifically bothered him about this subject all in an effort to either purchase or customize an appropriate math curriculum for him, but it was to no avail. We struggled through math lessons using a myriad of very good programs, and we managed to slowly move forward, but never to the point of clear understanding or appropriate application of the various math concepts. The one bright spot in our math studies was Aristotle’s increasing ability to verbally express his confusion with mathematical ideas as he got older. He often stated that he simply could not trust numbers. He fundamentally couldn’t accept that two plus two is always four and instinctively felt that there was some strange magic controlling the value of the numbers. Clearly, not an easy obstacle to overcome.
We live in an area with relatively few homeschoolers and while there are some popular, extra-curricular, tutoring programs reasonably close by, I was hesitant to try them due to their high cost and their use of the same, standard, teaching techniques that had failed us previously. So, we were left to just keep experimenting with and adjusting our methods as best we could. It wasn’t until Aristotle took an algebra class at the local community college that a little spark of understanding was ignited, and it was all due to the efforts of a wonderful professor who knew how to speak math in Aristotle’s language.
This professor understood all the ways students misunderstand math and was skilled in explaining things in a way struggling students could comprehend. Suddenly, concepts that had been sources of constant frustration were now manageable. Relationships between various, abstract, math concepts were now understandable to Aristotle. He started to gain some confidence in his ability to tackle increasingly complex equations and even faced advanced algebra with minimal trepidation. Mind you, he still personifies mathematics and thinks it’s a sneaky, evil construct bent on global annihilation, but he has mastered it enough to use it in his daily life and complete the math courses required to eventually transfer to a four-year college.
So, what was the lesson for this homeschooling mom in this long, complicated journey? The lesson was simply that sometimes homeschooling parents and students need outside help, and it’s okay to ask for said assistance. When we left the brick and mortar school behind, I incorrectly assumed that all traditional sources of educational support were no longer available to me. I believed that it was my sole responsibility to provide the perfect education to my children, and it was up to me to figure out how to do it successfully. Sure, I could search the internet, the library, or the words of other parents for tips and techniques, but relying on anyone else for day to day instruction seemed wrong and out of reach. In hindsight, it probably would have been much wiser to seek the help of a professional teacher or trained tutor early on to assist Aristotle than to try to teach myself how to work with his challenges. In the end, it has all worked out, but I have learned that I can’t always do it all and that sometimes getting help from others is the best way to provide that perfect education I so want for my children.