Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Right Start Math vs. Montessori Math

As requested on a recent thread on the Montessori Homeschool Facebook Page (run by Bess Wuertz, writer over at http://www.graceandgreenpastures.com/), I am going to share my experience using Right Start Math verses Montessori Math.

In may of last year, my husband and I both found ourselves out of work. Because of this circumstance, the money I had set aside for all those beautiful Montessori math manipulatives went toward living expenses. Luckily, I had already purchased the Right Start Math Level A lesson book for the purpose of playing the games and singing the songs during circle time or just for fun. Taking a second look at it from a teaching perspective, I initially thought that this would be a good fit for us. Beyond just saving us money, I thought that it seemed to follow a similar scope and sequence to Montessori and would be easy to build knowledge one lesson at a time. The fact that there were many manipulatives to start with was very important to me.

As we got started, I found that lessons one through eight are set up to teach the right start method. They begin by introducing the quantity of three using objects, fingers, and tally sticks. Each day adds a number and a material. By lesson 9 we had discovered the tally sticks, abacus, pattern materials, ordering strips, and bead cards.

At this point, I was still very excited about the Right Start program. I loved that the materials were presented in a precise manner, similar to a Montessori lesson. However, as we got into the meat of the material, my enthusiasm quickly dwindled.

Here are a few of the things that made me uncomfortable:

  • The materials are really one dimensional and do not allow for exploration of concepts. Many of the materials serve to illustrate the lesson and do not have enough substance to be explored further if chosen as an independent work. 
  • The lessons are entirely teacher driven. So, each lesson builds on the previous ones. Therefore, the materials only need to serve the purpose of the lesson rather than need of the child to explore the concept behind the lesson. It serves more as an illustration than a true manipulative. 
  • The child will not need to explore it alone, so it doesn't need a control of error. This is a key component to Montessori manipulatives. Control of error enables a child to quickly recognize an error and correct it. Again, this allows the materials to be used more as an illustration than a manipulative which fosters mastery of a material through repeated use. 
  • The material themselves do not isolate concepts. This is my favorite part about Montessori materials. The isolation of concepts sometimes seems overly obvious. But, it allows for each concept to be clearly defined before combining them for more complicated work. Right Start appears to have tried to apply this concept by isolating specific concepts in the beginning lessons. However, even those isolated lessons are being presented in an abstract fashion as the materials are often not three dimensional. 
  • The materials are much less tatical than Montessori materials. There are many cards and the tally sticks are flat. Even the abacus is very limited in it's use. On the other hand the colored bead materials, geometric solids, and golden bead work are all three dimensional and interconnected. 
  • The lessons bounce between multiple concepts in a matter of only 15-20 minutes. This does not allow time for the child to concentrate on their work and move through initial mental blocks into mastery. I am sure you can guess what I am going to say about that: without time to concentrate independently with the material, the tools become an illustration rather than a math manipulative.
For me, these major differences really turned me off from the program as a main teaching tool. My kids had fun playing the games and singing the songs together. But, they were not drawn to the material to explore it beyond the lesson--even when I placed it on the shelf. This was very discouraging to watch. Especially given that my daughter had always shown a special love for math and seemed to acquire the concepts easily when we were using only Montessori materials.

I ultimately stopped using Right Start when we came to the part/whole circle lessons. We started with tally sticks in the circles as the lesson dictated and gradually moved toward using only numbers, checking our work with the abacus. She seemed to understand the ideas during the lessons.

Then, one day, we were counting the days until Christmas using our countdown snowman. She knew that our goal was to get to day 25! On day 18, she put the new number up and I asked how many  days remained until Christmas. She struggled with her fingers and said "ughhhh! I DON'T know!"

Not wanting this moment to end in defeat, I said "lets try it using the part/whole circle!" Surely the visual would help the idea click. I put 25 in the larger "whole" circle. Then I asked, "how many days has it been since the beginning of December?" She takes a minute to look at the snowman before saying "18!" I then responded, "So, what is our first part?" ........................................Well this wasn't going well! Time for mom to help, "18, lets put 18 over here. Lets use the abacus to see how many more we need to make 25." I then set 18 up on the abacus, showed her 18 and then asked her to count up to 25. She got to 20 and became confused when it was time to start counting the next line. At this point she is at the brink of tears. She knows this should be simple, but she can't make sense of the tools.

I pulled out her number cards and let her build numbers to forget about the botched lesson. Then, a little later, I pulled out her beads and asked her the same problem. She did it quickly, exchanging ones for a ten bar as she progressed. Easy peasy. Then came that confident smile I know!

I honestly did not expect something like counting on an abacus to be so difficult for a child compared to the golden bead materials. Yet, Dr. Montessori understood how concret these beginning math concepts needed to be for a young child to fully grasp their complexities. She also understood the need for the child to explore the work. One reason I was drawn to Right Start for Kindergarten was that I was not confident in my own teaching ability. I thought that teacher-led lessons would be best to be sure that all the right material was being covered. Instead, I almost ruined my daughter's love for math.

There are two reasons that I think Right Start didn't work for us. One, it does not invite the child to explore the work. Two, it doesn't provide enough exposure to the materials. The reason Montessori materials are so successful is because they draw the child in with their beauty, simplicity, and an innate sense of how they work. This leads the child to explore them over and over again, familiarizing them with the work and instilling their use as second nature.

Ultimately I was disappointed about Right Start math because it is marketed as Montessori Materials adapted for classroom use. However, I don't believe that it contains enough of the components of a true montessori lesson/work to serve this purpose. I do like it as an aid to teaching concepts during circle time. The games and songs are very engaging and some of the materials present the initial concepts in intriguing ways. But, they don't have the breadth to guide the child toward mastery.

If you would like to know more about what key components make up a Montessori work, please visit this link saved in my Montessori pinterest album


This post will be followed by a youtube video comparing the two sets of materials to give a sense of what I mean.


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