It was gone.

Now it has returned.

The interest in math. She is barrelling ahead in her Singapore book again, easily internalizing things that I expected a child so young would really struggle with. The efficiency of her learning still surprises me. She’s excited to be mastering new concepts and algorithms, to be filling in pages, starting new sections, seeing her progress through the program. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is really about three or four months of Fiona not doing math.

Blogs and on-line communities present a very distorted view of homeschooling. You frequently see only the “best of”. You don’t see the long stretches of nothing. For three or four months Fiona’s interest in math has been negligible. For more than a hundred days over the past few months I could have posted “another day of no math.” But I didn’t. Why not? Because I wasn’t worried so I didn’t feel the need to speculate about what was going on. Because it’s hard to take cute photos of a kid “not doing math.” Because I was just not struck by the urge to write about how she had barely touched a pencil since Hallowe’en.

But today, recognizing again how easy it is to inadvertently present a distorted image of homeschooling on-line, I am posting this cute picture but instead choosing to inform everyone of the many many recent days when Fiona did not do any math at all. The scene above is a change from what has been our recent “normal.”

Why do kids go through phases like this, when they suddenly lose interest? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that they recognize that they’re not as ready as they’d like to be for what’s next in their learning. The second is that they’ve got something else they’re busy learning that is taking precedence. I can see that Fiona has struggled a little with the multi-step word problems Singapore introduces at this level; the bar-diagram method of pre-algebraic problem-solving for these sorts of problems just doesn’t sit well with her yet. And there’s no doubt that piano is where her intellectual drive has been flowing. This time it’s been easy for me to see why math shifted onto the back burner for a while.

However it’s not always clear to me what the reasons are. Not at the time. Sometimes I only see it in retrospect, because during the loss of interest phase the stuff that’s instead come to the front burner hasn’t necessarily revealed itself yet. But I now, after years of watching children learn, know it’s cooking. I’ve seen it enough times — several months of aimlessness and loss of apparent interest followed by a sudden bursting forth of new abilities, motivation and productivity. I don’t doubt it any more.

Of back burners

5 thoughts on “Of back burners

  • March 12, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Great post!

    My own theory is that, much like our brain is “working on things in the background” when we are sleeping (thus, we dream?) I think kids’ minds are also working on these things “in the background”.

    I’ve found that after DD has taken a break from something, she’ll come back to it seemingly ahead of where she left off. Or better able to grasp concepts that challenged her before.

  • March 14, 2009 at 7:18 am

    We definitely have this at home, and I’m never bothered by it. A few months ago DS was a music theory addict, crying that he wanted to do just another page between supper and bed, or trying to do theory in the car even though he had trouble keeping to the lines without the world moving. Then overnight, the interest died. I know he was getting to the extent of where he could get at that moment. There had been too many new notes in too short a space of time, and things were in danger of getting mixed up. But before he could do his confidence an injury, he stopped doing theory, and instead became obsessed with reading. Reading has died off a little, perhaps hastened by advancing to some books that had just a few too many new words per page, and just too many pages. We still read, but it’s not the same book 3 times a day and crying if he isn’t given more. Now the tantrums are for the days when no-one will play cricket with him. I’m sure theory and reading will come around again, and I’ll be interested to see how it will happen, and whether there is a jump in levels, or “just” an ability to handle the things that now I know are just a little bit much to take.

  • March 16, 2009 at 10:47 am

    My kids are like this too. But we all are here — even the adults. We go through “learning spurts” where we become completely obsessed with a topic for a few weeks or months, then drop it and return again later. We learn best that way.

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