A child's world may be built of alphabet blocks and brought to you by the letter K, but at Mathnasium of Chatham and Mathnasium of Summit numbers hold up the red and white walls. In fact, cartoon characters shaped like fours, sixes, and nines are living out their daily lives there, skateboarding a Möbius strip, lifting weights, and climbing a graph's notched y-axis like the ladder to a trapeze, ready to swing out into the universe. The cartoons live right on the walls, a jailbreak from the blackboard.

We take for granted that the world is made of words and forget that it's also painted by numbers. Visiting Mathnasium has been so astonishing because the children there are learning math as a second language, and, being children, absorbing it faster than Pig Latin. They've been taught that multiplication is an advanced form of counting in groups, and that one meaning of division is how many equal groups fit into the whole. As I witness them exploring solutions, each working on a personalized binder of printed-out materials, the room's white tables and groups of chairs seem suddenly to be written in this same language, and the instructors moving from student to student become ones carried into the tens column.

The centers' publicity brims with construction metaphors. Their favorite word is “foundational,” but they are careful to clarify that this is no synonym for “remedial.” They see math as a progression of related concepts, each dependent on the ones before, and our national numerical woes as an unfortunate side effect of us each having missed something somewhere along the way. By assessing their students to find those missing pieces, they design a program for them as individuals that fills in the pieces to “rebuild their foundation,” allowing everything afterward to fall into place like a basement Ikea project after you've found the missing screw.

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James and Jodi Ralston, the centers' owners, have done some building of their own. Three years after their grand opening, they have several hundred students in two centers, mostly word-of-mouth. They recall that not long ago the students in their centers were outnumbered by the cartoon characters.

When a fourth grade boy walks into the center, he finds the binder with the name he decorated in marker, and brings it to a table. Immediately he's presented with a real-world math dilemma: what time is it? There is only one clock – it's round – and cell phones are off-limits. We may take analog clocks for granted, but for many children born into an age that puts digital clocks on microwaves and cable boxes, the numbers around a real clock's circumference still pose a multiplication problem.

Next to him at the table sits a tall 16-year-old – the center caters to a broad range of ages – and the fourth-grader looks over his shoulder. “I thought this was a math center! What are all those letters?” The older boy laughs. “They stand for numbers,” he says. “You'll get there.”

The trick is to put numbers into everyday perspective. In “CurriculumPlus”, Mathnasium's regular program for students in elementary through high school, this is often accomplished by relating mathematical problems to real-life applications involving shape, size, time and money. In fact, any problem is liable to grow a dollar sign at any moment, and many students seemed to solve the same problem twice as quickly with actual currency. The center provides students with coins as learning materials. In fact, it has a micro-economy of its own. Whenever a student completes a page correctly, one of the instructors punches a card with a star-shaped hole puncher. It takes a one or two dozen punches to fill a punchcard (depending on age), and the cards are redeemable for rewards. A few save up 15 cards for a nice watch, but plenty more spend as they go, turning in one card at a time for a bag of Smart Puffs. Along the way, the students are learning the logic of exchange and equivalence. As they quickly discover, there is a direct mathematical relationship between pages of work and rewards. One more piece of evidence that the math skills they are developing apply everywhere.

Given the heavy emphasis on building strong foundations from scratch, it makes perfect sense that the center is introducing a special summer program for students in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade called “First Steps.” The program develops the core ideas underlying elementary math, such as classification, grouping, patterning, measurement, and number sense. The hands-on activities for each week's theme might include sorting the buttons from a sewing kit by shape, color, or number of holes – developing mathematical thinking skills – or using an ice cube tray – developing concepts of even and odd numbers.

Just as many of us wish we'd been raised bilingual, rescuing us from the nightmare of vocabulary flashcards, I wish that math were lodged that deeply in my aging brain. Technology has become a crutch – even people who used a slide-rule in school are now reaching for a calculator – and the ability to grasp numbers innately is irreplaceable. Computers won't put our calculations into context. Likewise, memorized facts, quickly forgotten, can never stand in for contextual and analytical thinking skills that last a lifetime.

My cellar is cracked and leaking. If I could only get underneath to rebuild my foundation.


© 2012 ROBERT WELLAND – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Robert Welland is a mathematics educator and freelance writer. Robert can be reached at info@robertwelland.com. For more information about Mathnasium's locations in Summit and Chatham, New Jersey, please contact Jodi or James Ralston at 973-377-6284 or jralston@mathnasium.com.