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    • Welcome to my interview with Dan Finkel, founder of and co-creator of the maths games Prime Climb and Tiny Polka Dot.

      With schools closed and parents struggling to help their children with maths, I thought I’d ask Dan Finkel if he could share some insights on how to make the process less painful for first-time homeschooling families.

      If you’d like to submit a question for Dan to answer, please click the pink “Ask a Question” button.

    • StephenL: What tips can you share for parents trying to help their child with math during the pandemic?

      Dan Finkel: It's a stressful and unusual situation for everyone, so the first thing is to take a breath. Everyone is in disarray these days, so don't expect things to go perfectly, and don't get frustrated when they don't. We all need to give ourselves space right now.

      The good news is that there are some opportunities and openings for math at home. The adult to student ratio is a lot better, for instance. That means you can slow down (or speed up) and go at the right pace for your child. The main thing is to start from where things make sense. If you child doesn't know how to do something, don't feel like you need to make them understand instantly. Instead, make the problem easier, shrink the numbers, find a good visual, and start from that point where it all seems natural. Then you can slowly build back up to the original problem. But that understanding that math needs to make sense is really key. 

      I'd also say that there's an opportunity for playfulness and lightness. I'm a huge fan of using games to explore math—I've been sharing favorites on my Math at Home Support emails—and having games or just a spirit of playfulness surround what you're doing will help a lot. 

      Finally, try to stay curious. We often accept math process we don't really understand, because it gives the right answer. But you and your child deserve to understand how and why things work. It's more fun that way, and you learn it more deeply too! The more you can stay playfully curious about the math and what's happening in your child's mind, the easier everything will go.

    • StephenL: I saw on Twitter that you just launched a new Kickstarter campaign. Can you talk about the new math game? How does it differ from Prime Climb?

      Dan Finkel: It's called MULTIPLICATION BY HEART VIsual Flash Cards. Someone described it as "the love child of Tiny Polka Dot and Prime Climb," and that's about right. It's a learning deck, like Tiny Polka Dot. The primary intended use is as visual flash cards for multiplication facts. The thing is, most flash cards are terrible, in my opinion. What's always been missing are solid visual that help you see what the expressions mean. 

      This deck uses three types of visuals: 1) skip counting/groups of, 2) arrays, and 3) prime factors. The prime factor colors are the same as in Prime Climb. Having different, meaningful visuals for multiplication allows you to practice your facts, but also connect facts to each other and to the underlying meaning of multiplication.
      And once you have a deck of cool cards, it turns out there's much more you can do with it! There is the opportunity for games, puzzles, explorations, and for kids to have their own idiosyncratic observations. 

      So I'm excited about the Kickstarter campaign, and the fact that we'll be making these cards available to people! And the campaign funded in 22 hours, so it seems like there's a real interest from people too! 

      Now we get to continue to fund as we get the word out, and also to improve the product through stretch goals. I can't wait to see it out in the world!

    • This is one of the things I've been most concerned about: the "here's forty great websites to help do math at home" problem.

      I think the answer is to focus on just one thing at a time. One activity, one questioning style, one innovation. Don't try to do it all at once.

      I tried to do it this way in my emails: one idea or game or activity at a time. Now there's a stack of nine of them, though! So if that's what you want to look through, I'd recommend just starting with the first, and not trying to plow through all nine at once.

    • The answer depends on the age. For preschool age kids, it's not really a big deal with math misconceptions happen, since they're going to be learning and relearning so much anyway, and there are going to be numerous wrong answers along the way. For older kids, you sometimes want to catch this misconceptions earlier before it becomes a habit.

      The best way to handle math misconceptions is to try it out and see if it works. This is one reason I like games: if you think you have a winning strategy, play me and beat me! If I win, I've shown you your strategy is insufficient without having to tell you.

      But it works for arithmetic too. If a kid subtracts 55 - 4 and gets 15, I have a guess what the misconception might be. I could try to explain, but it likely won't work, since the error is based on a more abstract misconception. So I might reach for another tool (building or drawing 55 and crossing out 4, going to the number line) that exposes the error without it just being me saying "No that's wrong. See what you did wrong here?" Getting kids to understand that something is off with their own understanding and that there is a possibility to fix it is really the key move.

    • These things become really specific to the situation. Some parents have real trauma around math, and that can get passed along to kids, depending on how they hear adults talk about math and approach math. But sometimes stuff happens at school that's totally unreleated to parents.

      The present moment is unusual because school is just over for so many people right now. But I think that presents an opportunity for parents to approach math in a positive way at home, to stay light, to stay playful, to stay curious.

      It's not a panacea. But we're not looking for perfection. We're looking for small positive steps we can take. And if we keep taking them, things will get better.

    • I'm inclined to agree, actually. There is a collection of facts that are very important to further work and understanding. It's just a smaller collection than you might think.

      We delude ourselves if we think all math is just memorizing a larger and larger body of isolated facts. In reality, we explore and make connections, and our understanding grows. We need to know certain facts and algorithms by heart (i.e., sums & products of one-digit numbers), but it's in connecting those facts and algorithms through observations, ideas, arguments etc. to the wider body of mathematics that they stay meaningful and at our fingertips.

    • This is the tough question right now, and frankly, there's no easy answer. Remote learning is hard. We're not prepared for it. It's just deeply challenging.

      Ideally, if you can get a child curious about something, they might be motivated to go off and try to mess with it on their own. So there's an art to helping kids see that there's something they don't get yet, but that they can play around with it and learn more.

      I think choosing tasks that require less explanation, and have a flavor of the internet meme of "here's a weird math trick. Does it really always work?" might be helpful right now. And the fewer words involved, the more accessible. But frankly, I'm trying to figure out the answer to this question too.

    • Thanks for this question. I think of struggle as pertaining to any situation that challenges you. And challenge is good! But our goal is to help the struggle be productive, because that's fundamentally where learning happens. It's the balance between challenge and success.

      So what makes struggle productive? Most important is a sense of movement, of not being totally stymied. The key is to have experiences where kids can have initial success, have a sense of possibility about what to try, but not necessarily know all the answers.

      Think about playing a game. If the rules aren't clear or if you lose every time, it's dispiriting. If you win every time, it's boring. But if the rules are clear and you win sometimes, but also lose sometimes, that's when things get interesting. That's when the struggle gets productive.

      Some kids thrive on challenge. But for a lot of kids, I'd help with that sense of early success, and making sure the "rules" of the game, or whatever challenge you're working on, is clear. If you check out my subtraction challenge problems, in the links above, I've got one on Diffy Squares.

      Kids should be able to do a Diffy Square on their own. That's understanding the rules of the game, and that's the entrance for playing. But how in the world can you make a Diffy Square go on for more levels? Super challenging question. It's between those two places that productive struggle can happen.