Life of Fred Math (as serious as it needs to be)
by Charlotte Webb
My family used Life of Fred math curriculum for about four years. My oldest daughter started with Fractions and worked all the way through Pre-Algebra with Economics independently. I began the elementary series with two of my children as a review and worked through it with them, it took a little over a year. Then they began Fractions.
The LOF curriculum makes five main claims in its marketing. I have reviewed the curriculum to see whether these claims can be substantiated after my children began having serious complications in their mathematical education while using this curriculum. The five main claims are: one, LOF is fun; two, it will teach students to think mathematically; three, it is not a “drill and kill” curriculum that relies on rote or memorization methods; four, it is clear and self-teaching; and five, it is comprehensive.
The first claim is easily substantiated by the many reviews online. Children enjoy the LOF books. Previously my daughter had scrawled, “I hate Math” memos. After a short time using LOF she wrote, “I love Math.” My oldest daughter would quickly snatch the new arrival of an elementary book ordered for her siblings just to read through the story. Yes, LOF is fun for the children.
Does LOF teach children to think mathematically as it claims? Will they “understand how math works,” and “why math works” as stated in their marketing? The elementary books begin by teaching the sums of seven. The next book teaches the sums of nine. The texts continue teaching the sums of the odd numbers through seventeen. Over halfway through book five of the series, Edgewood, the sums of ten are taught. Considering that we use a base ten system I find it strange that the sums of ten are not given emphasis as in other curriculums. The number ten is foundational. Children need to have a solid grasp of the addends of ten in order to successfully manipulate numbers when adding and subtracting with more than one digit. Yet, in LOF regarding the sums of tens this is written, “Write all the pairs that add to ten (Edgewood, pg.77).” That’s it. This does not develop a child’s number sense. Children need to know how to play with numbers, how to break them apart and combine them in different combinations. Other curriculums help children develop number sense through teaching different ideas or strategies that they can use when adding and subtracting, such as “adding one more than a sum of ten” or “adding one more than a double.” These strategies are not just to help a child memorize their facts, but they serve to teach a child number sense, or how to think mathematically.
How does LOF teach children the addition facts? Mainly through memorization. I could quote numerous passages throughout the books but this one I think sums up Dr. Schmidt’s pedagogical approach the best, “Here are the add-to 13 numbers. Study them. Say them aloud. (I had to correct a typo, the text actually says, ‘Stay them aloud.’) Learn them now (emphasis not mine, it is actually double underlined in the book)…Please don’t turn the page until you have them memorized. Please (Cats, pg.88).” The multiplication facts are taught in a similar manner. Rather than children being shown the patterns in multiplication or how the facts relate to one another the main emphasis is on memorization, which leads to the third claim.
Dr. Schmidt airs quite openly his thoughts about what he calls “drill and kill” methods of teaching mathematics. He even cautions parents to not “integrate traditional rote/memorization methods” with the LOF curriculum. So I was very surprised when we got to book eight in the series, Honey, where the multiplication tables are learned. In the previous books some time is spent explaining the two times table as doubles and a few mental pictures are given to aid in remembering the facts. Then some time is spent on the three times table. When the four times table is introduced, Fred, the main character of the books, is having a difficult time finding mental pictures to help his students remember the facts. So Fred comes up with the idea of having his students divide a piece of white paper and cut it into cards with each fact written on one card. He calls them Honey cards. I know them as Flash Cards. The four times table is not related to the two times table. The idea of multiplying a number by four as doubling and doubling a number is not given. Rather this is written, “The multiplication table is going to be yours today—from 2×2 up to 9×9. Your choice: Either…A) Get your mother/father/butler/maid/older brother/uncle/aunt to drive you to the store and buy the commercially made flash cards, or B) Get out some paper and scissors (or some index cards) and make your own Fred’s Honey Cards (Honey, pg. 83).” I will with some degree of embarrassment admit that I had my children follow Dr. Schmidt’s instructions and make Honey cards. They were promptly thrown in the trash as perhaps someone with more foresight than I could figure out that the children are able to see the answers through the paper cards, making them mostly useless, unless they held some value as a copywork exercise. I am even more embarrassed to admit, that I did not question the LOF curriculum at that point but continued believing in its unsubstantiated marketing claims. I went ahead and bought my children flash cards. The remaining chapters of Honey as well as some chapters in following books tell the children to practice their flash cards before beginning the chapter. The instructions are, “Take each card and say (or guess) the answer and see if you got it right (Honey, pg. 115).” Guessing the answer to a math fact, and more specifically teaching the children to do so, is not teaching children to think mathematically. Mathematical thinking relates the unknown fact to a known fact and then mathematically figures out the correct answer.
An interesting fact regarding the claim that LOF does not rely on memorization and by rote learning is that Dr. Schmidt urges parents to not integrate those methods with his curriculum. Yet, again, regarding the four times table when Fred is contemplating how to teach the facts in his classroom he comes up with the idea that if he has the students repeat the facts orally in the classroom, “they would start to sink in (Honey pg.65).” An aside is then made in the book to parents, “(Parents who really want their kids to learn their math facts could spend two minutes in every car trip doing what Fred did in his class. Just two minutes. It might make a big difference.)” Dr. Schmidt instructs parents to do exactly what elsewhere he urges parents not to do.
Besides the basic addition and multiplication facts being learned primarily through memorization the traditional algorithms are taught as a series of steps that should be mechanically followed in order to come up with the correct answer. Double digit addition is taught in this way, regarding adding the numbers 159 and 66, “When you add bigger numbers, you start on the right side…That’s 15. He wrote down the 5 and carried the 1. Do you see the little 1 near the 5? Then he added the little 1 to the 5 (that makes 6) and then added that 6 to the 6 and got 12. He wrote down the 2 and carried the 1. He put the little 1 next to the big 1. And finally, 1+1=2 (Edgewood, pg. 67).” No reason is provided to the children regarding why the numbers are moved around and calculated this way. No emphasis is placed on the fact that you are actually adding tens to tens and hundreds to hundreds not just six to six and one to one. This pedagogical approach to teaching the algorithms is repeated throughout the entire series, for both multiplication and division.
The long division algorithm and specifically dividing a number by a double digit number is where it all started breaking down for my younger children, which leads to the next claim, which is, that LOF is clear and can be self-taught. Dr. Schmidt explains that the elementary series is to be done with a parent while once a child begins the Fractions books the student should progress independently. My issue with long division is not that it could not be self-taught according to the book, but simply that the math is not explained clearly. Children are introduced to the concept of division with the idea and picture of dividing a carton of eggs among hungry men. The division algorithm is then shown. The next chapter breaks down the algorithm into steps using 78 divided by 3. Dr. Schmidt then explains that practice is what is needed to learn the steps of the division algorithm. Next a large example is given with the steps repeated over and over using the numbers 56,382 divided by 3. Over the next few chapters the children see a few similar division problems and only asked to solve three by themselves, despite being told that it is through repeated practice that the algorithm is learned. Then the text jumps right into dividing by a double digit. This is how it is explained, “Dividing by two digit numbers…is a little harder than dividing by single-digit numbers. Sometimes you have to guess how many times the divisor goes into the number. For example…(Honey, pg. 113).” The children are then given a problem to try themselves, 75 divided by 24. It is interesting to note that this problem is given to the children before they have memorized their multiplication tables, or even been asked to memorize division facts. In fact no mention is made of the division facts, as the text jumps right into teaching the algorithm and continues from there. How is any child to figure out how many times the number 75 can be divided by 24, when they have never even considered how many times 7 can be divided by 2. No mention is made of rounding the number 24 or using estimation, or making a table of division facts, but even if any of those strategies had been mentioned I do not see how it would be useful when as stated previously the children have never been introduced to the basic division facts.
The LOF curriculum is not clear and is difficult to self-teach in that there is an illogical presentation of mathematical concepts. Huge jumps are made from one concept to the next with little or no practice or explanations in between. It was when my youngest children hit the Fractions book, that everything finally fell completely apart. This book is to be done independently according to Dr. Schmidt. The book begins teaching fractions through some pictures of pies and a comb cut into pieces. Some mental pictures are made about dividing paper clips among friends etc…Then the children begin comparing fractions and reducing fractions, despite no mention being made about factoring, LCMs or GCFs. The children are taught how to reduce fractions this way, “Here’s an easy way to reduce a fraction (without having to draw a lot of pictures): You can divide the top and bottom of a fraction by the same number (Fractions, pg. 54).” No mention is made about how to know what number to divide by, or even more importantly why it works. A few chapters later children are told, “General Rule Please reduce fractions in your answer as much as possible (pg.66).” This is vague to a child who has not yet been taught about least common denominators. How do they know when the fraction has been reduced “as much as possible?” No explanation is given. More general rules regarding fractions follow on the next page, “General Rule #2: Any fraction with a zero on top is equal to zero…General Rule #3: Any fraction where the top and bottom are equal to each other is equal to one (pg. 67).” An example in each case is given, but no explanation as to why these facts are true, not even a picture to illustrate. Regarding the claim about clarity, general rule #3 would have been helpful to know before being taught how to reduce fractions. The illogical sequence continues. Next children are taught about Common Denominators. Then adding fractions, including fractions with different denominators and then finally in chapter 16 the concept of Least Common Multiple is explained, after numerous problems where the children are asked to reduce fractions and find common denominators, Dr. Schmidt finally gives them the tools to do what they have been being asked to do previously.
Well, my younger children never made it that far. Once they were asked to reduce fractions “as much as possible” despite having no idea what that meant, and asked to find a common denominator before they learned about factoring or LCMs the previous “I love Math” statements were replaced with slamming doors. I followed Dr. Schmidt’s advice and told them to reread the text more slowly and to think it through on their own. While they were thinking I grabbed the book and started flipping through it to find out where Dr. Schmidt does teach how to find the least common denominator? I asked my older daughter who had “successfully” completed the Fractions book and was working her way through Pre-Algebra with Economics , “Do you know what a Least Common Multiple is?” I received a quizzical glance. My heart stopped for a moment, then I continued probing, “Factoring, Least Common Denominator, Greatest Common Factor?” In my head I was screaming, “Anything at all about fractions???!!!” My daughter just stood there looking at me blankly. Then replied, “I might know something about the Least Common Multiple, I don’t really remember, maybe if I went back and looked in the book.”
And that was where our study with Fred grinded to a complete halt. I realized that my oldest daughter who was able to complete book after book of the LOF curriculum with few errors had been taught a handful of tricks. She was able to score well on her yearly achievement tests because she could do the majority of the basic computations, but she had not been taught the math behind the math. Being intelligent she had been able to struggle through and figure out how to get the right answers in the LOF books, but she had never been taught the logical system of Mathematics.
I tried giving my children some placement tests to diagnose what they did know. I found that in all three cases despite being able to work through the problems in the LOF books, they placed in the grade they would have been in before we started LOF. In other words, my oldest daughter who should have been halfway through 8th grade and ready to start Algebra, was not able to pass a 6th grade placement test. My younger two children who should have been halfway through 6th grade math could not pass a 4th grade placement test, they could not even answer the first question.
It is for this reason that I make the statement that LOF is not a complete curriculum as it is marketed. It is certainly not comprehensive. It does not provide a firm foundation for higher level mathematics. A brief review of the comments online, outside of Dr. Schmidt’s website reveals that most of the parents who love LOF are using it as a supplement; or are supplementing it with other materials; or are using it for review of previously learned concepts. The other positive reviews come from parents who love LOF based on its first claim, that it is fun. Many of these reviews come from parents of young elementary aged children. I have a great concern that these children who are having so much fun using the LOF curriculum will not have a solid foundation for future Mathematics. I am concerned that their parents may not see the danger in using the curriculum as marketed, as a comprehensive program, until their children are years behind in their Mathematical studies.
There is one more claim made about LOF, it is affordable. I do not agree. What price can I put on four years of my daughter’s education?