The Foundation of Mathematical Instruction at Lorien Wood School, Part 1
Mathematics is often seen as an exception— the one subject that cannot be taught holistically, conceptually, or creatively because of its seemingly rigid nature. At Lorien Wood, we challenge this perspective and believe absolute theorems and conceptual, innovative thinking are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a long-lasting ability to solve mathematical queries and prove axioms depends on one’s ability to critically think and analyze, not just on one’s ability to memorize or answer quickly. While memorization is important and at times essential, if a student can learn how to think critically about mathematics, he may approach all other subjects with a unique ability to reason and discern, and a keen awareness of his abilities and how to use them. A proper Mathematical instruction depends on a few key factors, all working in tandem to teach students the language of mathematics, a language which informs how they see the world.
The Teacher and Not the Textbook
Lorien Wood is founded on the importance of living ideas— thus much of our curriculum centers around excellent literature, written by those with such a profound and thorough knowledge of a subject that they are most able to holistically impart essential truths. Math textbooks are not profound displays of living ideas, as helpful as they may be. Though they are exhaustive displays of theorems and mathematical topics, textbooks are bland illustrations of the patterned, ordered, complex, and beautiful subject at hand. An instructor, having become an expert on the subject himself, is better suited to illustrate mathematical complexities differentially and understandably than a standard textbook. Mathematical instruction, according to Charlotte Mason, “depends upon the teacher and not the textbook” mainly because of an instructor’s knowledge of each child’s learning preferences and their ability to “give the inspiring ideas, what Coleridge calls the ‘Captain’ ideas, which should quicken imagination.” While textbooks are excellent resources, it should be the instructor’s desire to present truth in such a way that it comes alive to each student. Mathematics comes alive when it is presented to students imaginatively, integrally, and holistically— as a small part of a grand design.
A Philosophy of Recess:
DURING THE FIRST WEEKS OF SCHOOL, new recess parents are still a bit anxious to think about the myriad of ways students are allowed to use sticks in the wooded area on the side of the building called Camelot. “Are you sure this is okay?” one parent asks as two students sword fight with sticks in a duel matched only by those we read about in the stories of Sir Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. “It is!” I reply enthusiastically, “but remember sticks touch sticks, not people,” a small, yet significant rule.
These same recess parents marvel, as the year goes on, at the imagination of even the smallest students when they pick up a simple stick. Of course complex games of battle take place with a stick arsenal, but there are also feats of engineering genius as a sturdy bridge is constructed over the drainage ditch, or entire fairy cities emerge with nothing but found objects. Boys and girls alike are drawn not just to the playground (although it has its place —learning the monkey bars is certainly a right of passage), but to the enticing possibilities of sticks, acorns, and leaves.
Bursting out of the door to enter the freedom that recess brings, students see sticks, rocks, and dirt as instruments of creativity and joy. Their minds are reeling: “What should we build today?” The fairy village most certainly needs a fairy jail for the naughty fairies lurking about to cause trouble, or these long sticks fallen from a big storm are perfect for a lean-to fort built against the side of the building. They do not need fancy toys, or complex gadgets for outdoor play; just the time, space, and freedom to use what they find in God’s glorious and intricate creation.
There is a deep sense of pride when a student conquers and climbs the tree she had been working to climb all year. Or a sense of ownership in the group of boys who built a fortress the imaginary dragons were unable to penetrate. Pure joy radiates from the faces of a group of girls who, for the first time, experienced what it feels like to have mud on every inch of their bodies and they even lived to tell about it. This kind of physical awareness and confidence emerges not with structured activities and a list of objectives to complete, but with freedom to play, explore, and experience with all five senses, the world around them. Lorien Wood seeks to provide, throughout the rhythm of the day, many chances for children to experience God’s world and imagine the possibilities it holds for them.
Is there risk involved in allowing our precious students the freedom to pick up a rock as big as their heads or play with a stick? Certainly there are risks involved with this kind of play and exploration. We risk injury, frustrations, and we sometimes risk losing our own adult sanity. However, we believe this freedom offers something to our children that is increasingly hard to develop and cultivate in our technology driven world: the ability to freely explore God’s world, unencumbered, with Joyful Confidence.
Exploration of this sort fosters a deep sense of curiosity that continues well after the days of play sword-fighting and fairy-house building has ended. It flourishes during our 6th grade Watershed year, through garden planting and experiential learning in places like the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond that, the curiosity fostered through this early exploration builds the foundation for becoming a life-long learner. It encourages thinking outside of the box, pressing the limits, and being confident in knowing your own place in God’s world. When you trip on a stick in your yard or at school, see the stick with new eyes: never just a stick, but an instrument of adventure and endless possibilities. ❖