The lights were low. Textbooks littered the floor like empty bottles. I hadn't shaved in weeks and the algebraic formulae I couldn't understand nested in my beard and empty coffee cup. Somewhere a coyote howled, high and sweet and melancholy. This was going to be one fight I couldn't win.
For years I'd been confident in my math skills. I strode from concept to concept with ease and self-possession, expecting to find no principle, no problem I couldn't solve. And I didn't. . . until I tried to tackle algebra.
Algebra stood thirty-seven feet tall and had narrow eyes that flashed with a maniac gleam. Numbers and letters fell from his skin like 1000-year-old dirt. I was small and weak and armed only with a bland textbook and a pencil; I was no match for Algebra.
For years he haunted me, taunting me with my insufficient knowledge, my poor grasp of arithmetic principles. He brought me to a wasteland of unnavigable numbers, and I drowned. Until Fred came along.
Fred was a young line drawing whose mathematical skill rivaled that of his namesake, Friedrich Gauss. He reached out a poorly sketched hand and pulled me out of the mire of algebra and into the golden daylight of arithmetic, even trigonometry and calculus. I will never forget him; I can thank him only by telling this story.
Common scene: mom or dad dragging struggling kids to the table to do math. Uncommon scene: kids leaping over each other to be the first to the math textbook so they can read the lesson. I know it sounds like nonsense or even a vicious lie, but there's a good chance the second scene is what you'll witness day after day if you let a copy of any of the Life of Fred books into your children's hands.
The series chronicles the adventures (mathematical and otherwise) of Fred Gauss, a five-year-old math genius enrolled at Kittens University. Author Stan Schmidt's sense of humor is off-beat and hilarious (imagine the Monty Python troupe or Lemony Snicket teaching a math course to children), enlivening the text and ably demonstrating that, despite what most textbook writers would have us believe, math is not a dead subject and it's not hard to learn.
Each book picks up exactly where the last one leaves off, both in terms of Fred's story and the principles being taught. Fred finds himself in a variety of situations which require math for their solution, instead of presenting a topic and then looking for an illustration by which to apply it—this ordering helps kids (and adults) see how mathematical concepts are useful and why they should learn them, rather than presenting the concepts as mere theories without context.
How Do These Work?
Dr. Schmidt believes reading is the primary way people learn, not just about math but about any subject. Hearing is important in the early years before a child can read, but as they get older more and more of what they know comes from reading (and writing down what they know). Life of Fred is intended to be largely, even exclusively self-taught. Lessons are read by the student, and then application is reinforced by a series of problems. He encourages students to read at a well-modulated pace—certain concepts are difficult to grasp and should be read for comprehension, not speed.
As a result, there is very little teacher support for this curriculum. There is no solutions manual, and only three of the nine volumes have a limited teacher's guide. This is not the best program for a parent with little or no formal math background who wants to be able to personally instruct and guide their child. The Home Companions (teacher's guides) offer basic lesson plans, but Schmidt is adamant that the best way for a child to learn math is to read the lesson himself and struggle through it until he grasps the concept. The author welcomes emails and even phone calls from parents whose children are distraught and unable to understand a principle, but he also says he has received very few of those types of calls over the years.
Each book is broken into chapters dealing with key ideas. There are problem sets at the end of each chapter, and answers are included in the back of each book. The first two volumes include "Bridge" tests after every fifth chapter to help reinforce the material covered. These are not workbooks; they are hardcover texts designed to be used and re-used. Problem set answers should be recorded not in the books but on a seperate sheet of paper.
The ten elementary books (Apples, Butterflies, Cats, Dogs, Edgefield, Farming, Goldfish, Honey, Ice Cream and Jellybeans) are meant for young students and concentrate on basic math like addition and subtraction, telling time, money, and measurements. But Schmidt manages to include basic algebraic content and problems (plus quite the variety of seemingly unrelated information) in a way that kids will find both fun and understandable. (Read a more in-depth review here.)
The three intermediate books (Kidneys, Liver and Mineshaft) are meant for students who have their addition and multiplication tables down cold, but are not yet in 5th grade. These are new to the course, and should be used prior to Fractions and Decimals and Percents. Mr. Schmidt believes that most students of average intelligence and curiosity can get through the rest of the books fairly rapidly, and doesn't think it's necessary to start kids on Fractions too early.
The next two books, Fractions and Decimals and Percents, cover fairly basic principles. They are written for grade school children, typically 5th and above, but aren't condescending or written at a "lower level." Kids are expected to read fairly well and to be able to retain what they read. While a lot of the information is basic math, there are several elements that most curricula don't cover until high school (like the commutative property), but ideas are presented so clearly that younger kids shouldn't have much problem grasping them.
Stan Schmidt opens Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics with a chapter on friction, using the scientific concept as a way to compare math and science, and to demonstrate how the two interact. This is part of the Life of Fred program of showing how mathematics are practically useful as well as theoretically important, and it succeeds beyond what we could reasonably expect. Before they've even delved into hard algebra, students will be learning essential scientific concepts through the mathematics behind them, and thus increasing their mathematical fluency and prowess before moving on to more difficult topics.
Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology and Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics are intended to be read sequentially since the concepts explored are progressive and interlinked. The biology and economics aspects are added features—math is still the focus. However, the author avers that the first can double as a 7th grade science text, and the second as a high school economics text. These books together make an excellent bridge from the basic math explored in the first two Fred texts, and the much more complex material of Beginning Algebra and beyond. That Dr. Schmidt can manage to make math and biology and economics interesting simultaneously is testament to his consummate genius.
Beginning Algebra and Advanced Algebra make a smooth transition from more basic functions to far more complex ones. The lighthearted approach is ably maintained, and algebraic principles are related to other branches of math and life in general in a way that will encourage most kids to want to learn more. Linear Algebra (a recent addition) is more advanced than its predecessors (meant to follow Calculus) and concentrates on linear equations and basic trigonometric functions.The texts are comprehensive, and leave the way openfor more advanced math.
Older editions of the Beginning and Advanced Algebra texts have accompanying Home Companions; newer "expanded" editions have that material combined in the text. Linear Algebra has only a "City Answers" key. "City Answer" keys include answers to all city-themed problem sets included in the text. Home Companions include answers to problem sets, as well as brief supplementary information for parents to help kids grasp important concepts, 101 daily readings to divide chapters into more easily manageable sizes, lesson plans, and extra practice. They aren't essential, but they are extremely useful for both teachers and students.
Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus and Statistics aren't what they sound like. At least, they aren't what you'd typically assume they sound like—daunting, incomprehensibly tedious tomes with lines and squiggles and lots of numbers and letters. That's all here, but presented in such an engaging and hysterically funny way that students testify to actually wanting to do the lessons and not having to be told to do them. Only Trigonometry currently has a Home Companion. Geometry, Calculus and Statistics have "City Answers."
The series can be started at any age (even adults use it frequently). Schmidt suggests students who apply themselves can be into the Calculus text by tenth grade and finished by the end of twelfth. Since a lot of the material covered is college-level (even upper-college-level), students who finish the entire series should be more than prepared for what they might encounter in a typical university math program. Even if they don't go on to college, however, they will be mathematically knowledgeable in a way few people ever are—they will understand why math is important and what kind of everyday problems they can solve with it.
Criticisms of Life of Fred are pretty standard—not enough review, little teacher support, no solutions manual. While these can be frustrating, Schmidt purposely designed the course this way; those elements were not omitted as an oversight. He wanted to write a math curriculum that kids could teach themselves, believing that when a person discovers something on their own, it will stick with them much better and for longer. And his open communication policy shows that he is not trying to withhold information from anyone, only to present a curriculum that reflects his philosophy of education.
Bear in mind that this is a relatively new curriculum, and although we have a lot of customers buying it, we don't have much knowledge about how well kids understand the material (especially in regards to testing). In our experience, most kids seem to love the program and format, and parents have been enthusiastically buying later levels; we have also read plenty of internet testimonials praising it. There has been some limited negative feedback for Dogs (though that issue seems to be resolved) and at the Beginning Algebra level (customers have cited not understanding descriptions, frustration with the limited number of review questions and the limited solutions), and a few people have returned it after buying it for evaluation. While we are very attracted to this series, the verdict is still out on its overall effectiveness.
Math is rarely fun. Even those who naturally like it are often frustrated or confused by esoteric and dry textbooks. The Fred books are practical, plain and fun. (If you think we're belaboring the "fun-ness" of these books, take a look at one yourself.) Kids should want to learn; as far as math is concerned, Life of Fred is pretty sure to do the trick.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.