Homeschool Help from a Rocket Scientist and Father of Twelve – CalcuLadder

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My dad, Dr. Edwin C. Myers is a rocket scientist. In the 1970s, he designed the optics of the Infrared Interferometric Spectrometer for NASA’s Voyager I and II space probes and was featured in Who’s Who in Technology Today. He has taught at the university level, performed geophysical research in the petroleum industry, and served in public elected office. He also authored the world-famous CalcuLadder® math drill series. My mom, Nellie Myers, holds her B.A. in art and is an accomplished artist.

My parents started homeschooling in 1980 – back before most people had even heard of homeschooling!  Homeschooling wasn’t easy.  There were few educational materials available to homeschoolers at the time, and you couldn’t do a quick internet search either!

Thanks to God, Dad and Mom successfully homeschooled all twelve of us children, from K-12th grade, with my youngest brothers graduating in 2014.  My dad still likes to joke, “Nellie and I only wanted two kids — we just never got the two we wanted!”

Homeschool Help From a Rocket Scientist

Here is some valuable insight that my dad shares for homeschooling parents today:

“I still remember the evening over 35 years ago when I found out that our oldest son—who was finishing up a second-grade math workbook—couldn’t add:

“Say, Matthew, what’s 7 + 4?”

“Uh, 7 + 4?” Matthew replied. “Let’s see . . . 7, (and his fingers went under the table as he whispered slowly) 8, 9, 10, 11 . . . 11!”

Almost every problem I asked him went that way. Matthew understood the concept of addition and he could use a concrete procedure (counting fingers) to get the right answer—most of the time— but only after 7 or 8 seconds!

“Two years with workbooks haven’t given Matthew the level of skill he needs,” I thought.

“He’ll really get bogged down in multi-digit multiplication and long division, where he’s got to use addition and subtraction routinely on his way to getting the answer. And if he learns to multiply and divide no better than he adds and subtracts, then fractions will be a disaster!” 

Matthew’s experience was a classic example of the limitations of knowledge without know-how.

Tensed boy sitting with stack of books against rocket science theory

The Armchair Quarterback

A familiar illustration of knowledge without know-how is the armchair quarterback. A head full of football knowledge, the armchair quarterback can identify all types of football playing formations, quote the rules of the game in detail, recite statistics on dozens of players and teams, and call excellent plays from his TV-side seat.

It is quite another thing, however, to walk onto the playing field and actually EXECUTE a brilliant play that was developed while sitting in an armchair, and most armchair quarterbacks would fail if they tried. Fortunately, however, most of us don’t have to earn our livelihood by playing football, so that our playing skills don’t make a great deal of difference in our lives.

There are a number of skills, though, in which we cannot afford to be mere armchair quarterbacks, but in which our practical performance level makes a big difference in our capability as stewards under God. What are some of these skills? And how can we tell when a skill is learned “well enough”?

Self-Reinforcing Skills

We want our children to get to that delightful point where they “take off and run” with the skills they’ve practiced in the classroom. This happens when students get “over the hump” of their initial awkwardness and slowness, and gain confidence and the realization that their new skills make them more capable and productive.

Many students never get over the hump in certain skills. Unless one gets over the hump, the new skill tends to fall into disuse. A good example of this tendency is the “might-have-been piano player.”

Many of us have perhaps taken lessons on the piano or another musical instrument in the past. We probably recall the unpleasantness of having to practice a skill that simply seemed to rob us of time for doing other activities at which we were more adept. If we never reached the point where piano playing “paid off” in making an attractive sound for ourselves, chances are that we’ve lost much of whatever playing skills we once attained.

Hemmed In by the Hump!

There is often an uncomfortable period — a “hump”— in the learning of an unfamiliar skill. During this period, our child is often aware of his own clumsiness in regard to the skill he’s learning. He may become irritated that the process of learning the new skill leaves him less time for other activities he enjoys.

Our child may not appreciate the fact that the new skill, once learned sufficiently, may well open whole new vistas of interest, usefulness, capability, and enjoyment.

How does our child get “over the hump,” to where clumsiness is replaced by confidence and vexation by adventure?

The Skills Chain – No Stronger than its Weakest Link

girl concerntrating with rocket science written on the wall next to her

Most tasks in which we would like our children to excel involve the use of a whole suite of skills—a “skills chain.”

For example, we may casually think that solving the math problem “5 + 2 =” calls for the use of the “addition skill.”  However, even this rather basic problem requires competence in several skills in order to be solved successfully.

These skills include visual recognition of the numerals written on the page, mental connection with the values to which the numerals correlate, knowledge of the meaning of the “+” and “=” signs, and sufficient verbal or manual skill to say or write the answer.

Now let’s take the long division problem, “628 ÷ 13.” To solve this problem, one must: recognize the numerals and notational marks on the page and their mathematical significance, estimate the various digits of the quotient (a multiplication skill), place them over the correct digits in the dividend (a place-value skill), multiply by the divisor (this may include the “carrying” skills of addition), subtract to find remainders, and so on.

All of the skills used in the “5 + 2” problem are still very much needed in the “628 ÷ 13” problem! Now here’s the rub: a weak link in the skills chain, even a weak “addition” link, will adversely affect our student’s performance in long division.

The general principle is: the quality of our students’ performance in any given task is likely to be limited by the weakest link in the skills chain required for that task.  So, a weak link in the skills chain at any given proficiency level will adversely affect performance at all higher proficiency levels.

What does all this have to do with the skills “humps” we were talking about earlier? Just this: a weak link in the skills chain is nothing other than a skill that has never gotten over the hump!

For example, a student may habitually resort to mental “finger-counting,” like my son Matthew did when solving simple addition problems like “5 + 2.”  We may not think it’s any big deal. Later, though, when he encounters problems like “628 ÷ 13,” in which additional skills need to be “second nature,” the addition link that once seemed strong snaps, and our student bogs down and becomes discouraged.

Over the Hump!

math written in background of photo with text overlay

So, suppose our student is having trouble in a particular academic area.  How do we find the weak links in his or her skills chain?

One good way is to back way up and try some activities which should be quite easy, which require only links which our student should have mastered long ago. Lo and behold, we may find that there are some unconquered humps even among those basic skills!

Try activities that require successive links, until we notice that our student begins to have trouble.

  • At this point, we should “drill” our student on the weak links, helping him to get over the hump and strengthen the weak links in his skills chain. Then, gradually add more “weight” and use further links. (Well-designed drills are not overly long or tedious.)
  • Don’t presume that “knowing about” is the same as doing well. We don’t want mere armchair quarterbacks! In the midst of such questions as “Can my child describe it?”, “Can my child give an example of it?”, “Can my child classify it?”, and so on, don’t forget the question, “Can my child DO it?”
  • Try to raise the proficiency level of each new skill a bit higher than it “needs” to be at that particular time. As soon as the very next skill is introduced, the previously learned skill will need to function at this higher (i.e., confident, natural, over the hump) level.
  • Try to cultivate a diagnostic frame of mind as you evaluate your children’s performance. When your kids are having difficulties, ask yourself, “What are the skill ‘links’ that are involved in doing this academic task?”, “Which one of these links seems to be weak?”.
  • Give your kids a daily dose of “academic calisthenics.” These can take the form of brief, daily performance drills that focus on factual and procedural, nuts-and-bolts DOING. Drills with goals for both time and accuracy make weak areas stand out like sore thumbs, and provide a great way for students and teachers to measure and recognize skills improvement.
  • Give your kids opportunities to use their skills in the real world. Let them practice penmanship by addressing envelopes for you; practice reading by reading Bible verses or short news articles to the family; or practice math by adding up a grocery bill from the prices in a store flyer. Practice makes permanent.
  • Finally, give your kids the opportunity to meet a performance standard – advancement to higher-level drills is conditioned on successful mastery of earlier drills. In this way, our students can experience the pleasure and gratitude that comes from getting “over the humps” with God’s enablement and provision.

When our students get over their learning humps, they forge strong skills chains and begin to sense the opportunities for using their skills with an expectation of success. They begin to use their new skills on their own, gaining practice and polish as they blossom into fuller possession of the abilities that God has given them!”

The episode with my brother, Matthew, that my dad shared above is what spurred my dad on to develop the Learning Vitamins drill series: CalcuLadder, ReadyWriter, AlphaBetter, and SanctiFinder—quick, potent drills to bridge the gap between just ‘knowing about’ and doing well. In math and other key areas, just a few minutes a day with Learning Vitamins help build skills to that delightful point where your children take off and run with them!

Today, over a MILLION children worldwide have used the Learning Vitamins!

So…what happened to my brother, Matthew, who had to count on his fingers to add? Well, today, Matthew is a high-ranking military officer who uses mathematics every day to design buildings, roads, and bridges. He has won numerous medals and awards throughout many years of military service! None of this would have been possible without my dad’s math drills, the CalcuLadders!

This post was written by....

Anna Busenitz from School Made Simple

This article is a part of our How We Homeschool Series; a collection of content from full-time, veteran homeschoolers sharing their own experiences on the versatility and diversity of homeschooling. You can read more about the series, and see all of the content, by clicking the image below. 

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