Math: It's Far from Elementary, My Dear

A fourth-grader's request for help on her math homework leaves a parent stumped. Emily Yoffe, who writes the "Human Guinea Pig" column for Slate, tells Madeleine Brand about her experience with the new math.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Emily Yoffe writes the Human Guinea Pig column for the Online magazine Slate. She puts herself through experiences most of us just wonder about. Her latest experiment was with elementary school math. I spoke with Emily earlier about what inspired her to test her math skills.

Ms. EMILY YOFFE (Writer, Slate Magazine): My daughter would come to me and say mom can you help me with this problem and it would be a math problem. So beads of sweat would start popping out on my forehead and I realized once she got into fourth grade I could no longer help her. And this seemed really humiliating and unnecessary so, I thought I've got to be able to help my elementary school age daughter with math.

BRAND: So, by the time she was eight she had already outpaced you?

Ms. YOFFE: Let's say nine.

BRAND: Nine, okay. We are talking about numbers, let's be accurate.

Ms. YOFFE: Yes.

BRAND: Okay, so you go back to school. You take some sort of crash course and what is this crash course?

Ms. YOFFE: This is not a crash course. I went to Kumon, which is a Japanese after school tutoring program. Sort of a self instructed method. There are instructors there if you get stuck, but you work through a series of drills and you just slowly master mathematics.

BRAND: And this is for children?

Ms. YOFFE: Yes. I was the only person they're thinking about, should I get Botox, while I was working on these drills.

BRAND: And when you first entered, do you have to take a placement test to figure out just where you are?

Ms. YOFFE: You do.

BRAND: And where were you?

Ms. YOFFE: My placement test did not go that well. There were sixty questions. I got things like thirteen minus five wrong. In the end I was placed in first grade.

BRAND: First grade?

Ms. YOFFE: Now let me mention, the last time I was in first grade was during the Kennedy administration. So it was a little discouraging to see I hadn't made any mathematical progress since then.

BRAND: And how did you do?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, this was kind of a struggle. I had to lower my expectations so I decided I just wanted to get ahead of my daughter. I started at the end of her fourth grade year. So, I wanted to get to sixth grade math. My daughter really disappointed me by doing well at math during fourth grade so she got moved up and now she's doing sixth grade math even though she's at fifth grade. Just totally blew my plan anyway.

BRAND: Well, Emily, this really begs the question, why did you think that you should bone up on your math skills to begin with to help your daughter, when clearly she really, really didn't need your help.

Ms. YOFFE: Well, you raise a good point because my desire to help her ended up seeming really stupid to me when I was sitting there grinding through two hours worth of drills a night and I realized the solution to this was just to say to her, if she had a question, go figure it out yourself or ask the teacher tomorrow.

BRAND: And really, you know, you have done quite well for yourself in your, let's say 40-plus years on this planet. That, without mastering grade level math, so really, why bother?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, I always thought, oh, you know, all right I'm not that good at math and I had reasons for it. Like I wasn't breast-fed. I grew up during a sexist time. I always thought well I could do it if I applied myself. I realized either I was really profoundly stupid or I had a learning disability and I went and looked it up and I think I'm a, I have dyscalculia. I'm a dyscalculiak.

BRAND: Is that real?

Ms. YOFFE: That's for real. I'm a dyscalculiak.

BRAND: See, where you may lack in your math abilities, you shine in your verbal abilities. That's an impressive word.

Ms. YOFFE: I've got to have something. I can't, you know I can't make change.

BRAND: Emily Yoffe writes the Human Guinea Pig column for the Online magazine Slate. Thank you, Emily.

Ms. YOFFE: My pleasure.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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