If you have ever read Robinson Crusoe, you may remember one of his most serendipitous discoveries. Crusoe, the shipwrecked castaway, finds barley growing by his homemade shelter and realizes that he himself must have grown it, however unintentionally. He deduces that the grain has grown from what he believed to be nothing more than dust and husks—all that remain when the rats have finished with the bag’s contents. He can barely remember tossing the stuff out, and yet it produces a crop for him. Crusoe was lucky in his unintentional “planting”; sometimes we are not!
Have these sentiments ever surfaced at your house during a math lesson:
• It’s hard!
• It’s boring.
• Nobody likes this!
• Girls just aren’t good at it.
• I’m not good at it!
• I’m not a “math person.”
• I’ll never understand this.
• Nobody really understands this.
• I’ll never use this in the real world.
Did these thoughts come from your kids—or from you?! Presuppositions such as these are like Crusoe’s husks and dust: they produce an unintentional crop that often surprises us.
Presuppositions are the underlying thoughts and beliefs we bring to almost every task and situation. They color our perceptions, affect our efforts, and give a clue to our worldview. They are our beginning points and often define our ends. We may spend years trying to overcome them, if we recognize them as negative or detrimental. The first step is to recognize them.
From where do negative presuppositions come? Sometimes they develop from a formative experience. Sometimes they come from the ill-spoken words of another. Sometimes they arise from buying into another’s experience. Many of us had less than ideal experiences with math instruction in our own schooling. Maybe we missed the explanation of a pivotal concept; maybe we had a teacher wholly focused on the “How” when we needed to hear the “Why.” Maybe we just forged ahead to the big ideas when we should have slowed down and drilled the basics a bit longer. Doubtlessly, some of us heard our own parents mutter about “new math” and being unable to explain homework to us. We may have heard an idolized older sibling complain about how hard a certain math class was and created for ourselves a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence, we decided that math was a subject we would never understand, a subject we just were not good at, a subject too hard for those who were not “math people.” Presuppositions can take root from many seeds.
Our presuppositions impacted our education, and shortchanged us, perhaps. Unfortunately for our children, they also influence our present behavior. We must ask ourselves if our presuppositions are coloring our children’s thoughts about math; are they inheriting our bad ideas? As homeschooling parents, we are dedicated to giving our children the best education possible—a better one than we ourselves had. To give our children what we may not have had ourselves, we must root out our hindering presuppositions, see them for what they are, and replace them with better thoughts. This may mean replacing negative self-talk with simple statements of confident intention:
• I bet we can do this together!
• We memorized all those Latin endings!
• Multiplication tables are no big deal!
It may mean passing on the assumption that math time will be fun and filled with “playing with numbers,” rather than being boring and filled with worksheets. Perhaps we need to be more interested in having fun than in getting done. Replacing some everyday problem sets with “math in the everyday” will vanquish those “never-use-this-in-the-real-world” accusations. Maybe we need to redeem our math education by tackling the subject again, minus our presuppositions, and embracing the possibility that it is not hard, it is not boring, we like this, we can be good at it, we are math people who do understand it, and we are using it now in our very real world! Let us set ourselves and our children free from those old presuppositions; let us choose better beginning points, and thus redefine our ends.
(That rousing cheer you hear is coming from the children in my own house!)