Math is frequently the elephant in the room when it comes to home education. Parents either don't have sufficient background themselves to teach the subject, or they don't have time. As many of you know, this means math programs are often huge and expensive, putting them out of reach for the very people who need them.
Thanks to Maria Miller, you can turn that elephant into a mammoth—Math Mammoth, that is, a streamlined and very affordable alternative to more sprawling curricula. A collection of products ranging from a complete math curriculum to a variety of supplemental or review worktexts for grades 1-7, this is far from a fossil and hopefully marks a Cambrian explosion in the evolution of math curriculum.
How Do These Work?
The centerpiece of Math Mammoth is the Light Blue Series, a complete curriculum for grades 1-7. For each grade there are four books: two consumable worktexts (one for each semester), an answer key, and a consumable book of chapter-end tests and cumulative review. In older editions, all books were exclusively black and white; now, the worktexts are all full-color. In addition to print editions, all Math Mammoth texts are also available as PDF downloads from Miller's website.
There's no calendar for use, and no scope and sequence, but each grade level set of books is for one year of study. For those wanting to enter the Math Mammoth Light Blue Series from another program, Miller does offer free assessment tests for each grade level available for download on her website. As far as how to teach the books, you can be flexible—she encourages instructors to have kids cover the basic functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) first, but the other chapters can be completed in any order, according to interest or whether a student is "stuck" on a particular concept.
Miller markets this series as "self-teaching," meaning that kids can work through the texts on their own with little or no help. Because all the instruction is in the worktexts alongside the problems, there's no need for a textbook and students are able to simply read the text and do the relevant work. It is important to note that there are no teacher materials, other than some content in the worktexts and the answer keys.
Each of the worktexts for every grade level is divided into a number of chapters focusing on a particular theme or math topic (addition, time and money, geometry, ratios and proportions, etc.), with several lessons comprising each chapter. At the start of each chapter is a letter to teachers or parents explaining the salient aspects of the chapter along with some helpful tips for presenting the material. Besides this letter, there's also a long list of Internet resources related to the subject of the chapter.
For the younger grades (1-3), Miller provides games to assist the worktext instruction, but she doesn't encourage extensive use of manipulatives. Instead, she provides pictures (sometimes of cute animals and objects, sometimes of manipulatives like block counters), which she believes are sufficient for teaching students the concepts.
Math Mammoth Light Blue Series is a mastery math program. This means students delve into a single topic until they've internalized or "mastered" it—in other words, until they know it thoroughly and can move on without forgetting it. Those familiar with Singapore Math will recognize this method. The alternative spiral method introduces new ideas almost every lesson, piles on practice problems, and gives students a constantly evolving frame of reference. Miller contends that mastery is preferable because it helps with mental organization. It is important to know that while Miller uses the mastery approach, there is regular review throughout each text.
There are a variety of other offerings from Math Mammoth as well, either for those using the Light Blue Series curriculum, or for those using another program but who need to fill gaps, do some remedial work, etc. The somewhat confusingly named Blue Series is the most comprehensive solution—a series of workbooks very similar in approach and content to the Light Blue Series, but with no grade level specified and organized by topic so you can pick the one your child needs for review, filling gaps, reinforcement, etc. There is also no in-text explanation of problems or functions.
Two other series, the Golden Series and the Green Series, provide even more work to help students thoroughly hone their skills. Both of these feature what Miller calls "hand-crafted workpages" designed to stretch students' problem-solving skills. Each page covers a single topic, but with a wide range of relevant problems to challenge kids' computational abilities.
The Golden Series is comprised of twelve worktexts, two each for grades 3-8/9, and each worktext with 120-150 worksheets. The Green Series includes nine worktexts each covering a single topic (fractions, decimals, etc.). You can also get all the workpages from both series on a single CD-ROM. The content in these two series has no in-text explanation, and must be taught by an experienced math instructor.
Listing everything Miller offers would take more space than we have here. There's another series of grade-specific review workbooks for grades 1-6, and a host of printable worksheets available from the Math Mammoth website, either free-of-charge or for a nominal fee. She sells and promotes a series of workbooks by Frank Wilson called Make It Real Learning, which show kids the real-world application of what can seem like unnecessarily esoteric math functions. She has videos, a newsletter, South African and Spanish versions, all kinds of free stuff, guidance for parents and teachers, a discussion of Common Core and how her program compares, and literally much, much more.
To call Math Mammoth simply another curriculum, then, is to grossly underestimate its true scope and potential. Because there are so many options, and because Miller generously offers so many of them for free either in connection with purchasing a book or series, or as samples, you don't have to make the final plunge right away as with so many other math programs. You can test it thoroughly before driving it to ensure that it will take you to the glorious horizon of math proficiency, rather than to that forbidden stretch of highway where all hopes die.
Our Honest Opinion
Minimalist living—at least its 21st-century manifestation—has rightly had its critics, mainly because those who brag about limiting their physical possessions to 37 items have to be independently wealthy in order to maintain their lifestyle. But cutting the clutter, getting rid of what isn't necessary, unburdening yourself of things you can't take beyond this life—this is an admirable goal. And this is exactly what Maria Miller has accomplished for math curriculum.
Like hipster minimalists on 5-star tours of South America, Miller's approach is not without its critics. And some of these criticisms are perfectly understandable. The main one is the strongest: there simply isn't enough instruction in the worktexts, or enough support for teachers, especially for parents without a strong or any background in math. Instruction is sparse in the Math Mammoth books, and in some it is entirely non-existent.
What some of the critics seem not to understand is that this is by design. It's not that Miller forgot to include something, or that she doesn't realize some things need to be explained. Rather, she recognizes that much of what is said in typical math textbooks is unnecessary, and may serve to confuse rather than enlighten many students. Additionally, since she chooses the mastery rather than the spiral approach, she needs to employ less instruction because she isn't constantly looping back to old topics.
The solution isn't to pile on lots of instruction, but to train kids to read what instruction there is carefully and slowly. If they just breeze past the instruction, they won't learn; but this is arguably true even if there's constant repetition. It could be argued that there isn't enough review, but even this is easily refuted—there are so many review options available from Miller's website (all of them in both print and downloadable form) that if there's not enough review in the text, you can just procure the relevant workpages.
It's not necessarily true, however, that Math Mammoth Light Blue Series is truly self-teaching, at least not for younger students. Miller apparently expects first graders to be fluent readers, an expectation that is increasingly rarely substantiated. This doesn't necessarily mean parents will need to spend a lot of time trying to plan lessons, but it does mean that instructors will need to guide younger kids through the lessons, or at least thoroughly introduce each one.
Another valid criticism of Math Mammoth is that there isn't enough teacher support. If you aren't a math whiz yourself, or at least math competent with some serious instruction under your belt, it's very likely you'll need more help than what you can get from Miller's website or the books themselves. This isn't necessarily true, but if your seventh grader asks you a tough question, you might find it difficult to answer, especially if your student is in the habit of doing math all by herself.
These potential problems aside, Math Mammoth is still one of the best programs we've seen. This is partly due to the massive amount of supplemental workpages available to really cement the concepts in students' minds. Even more important, however, is that it is no-nonsense, no-frills, and thoroughly dedicated to giving kids a well-rounded, fast-paced, and comprehensive math education. Math Mammoth is definitely not for everyone, of course, but those looking for a high-quality self-teaching program should definitely consider it.
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.
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