Intrepid Math

My 5th grade son is not interested in his on-line math assignments from school. How about your kids? (Insert the ubiquitous laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying-emoji-here. Or maybe I’m crying so hard, I’m laughing?)

The following is what we tried last week, and it worked very well. My son enjoys and succeeds in “school” math in general, and he was willing to try this. That said, your child does not need to be a traditionally “mathy” kid in order to benefit from this approach. Give it a try. See how it goes. is an online resource for math teachers and parents. It is “challenging math for adventurous learners.” Please note that the site doesn’t say anything about being “math for kids who have been labelled by themselves or their teachers as being good at math.” Being labelled “good at math” is a bit rubbish. But that’s a different conversation. What’s most important here is that anyone can enjoy a good accessible challenge. And, please, do read about Jerry Burkhart and his approach to mathematical learning.

On to the activity…

Under the 5280 Math Resources content header is Intrepid Math. I chose Intrepid Math Set 1 and printed it out. What you do next depends entirely on your situation with your own child, but here is what worked for us:

I emailed a copy of the math set to my son’s friend. Then they FaceTimed each other. I coached them through the first page of the Math Set, which simply emphasizes that this will NOT feel like a typical math problem to solve. It will take a lot of time. They will make mistakes. They may not finish. Then I set them free to work through the rest of the pages themselves. And I watched.

They discussed a little. They read the problem aloud. I noticed they misinterpreted what it was asking, but I didn’t say anything. One boy started jotting things down and trying different approaches. The other boy just sat and stared. I worried that he wasn’t engaged, but I didn’t say anything. I got up and went into the kitchen where I could hear but not be on top of them. After a couple minutes, they noticed their misinterpretation. The boy who was not writing anything down began commenting, “No, that won’t work because…” and “What if we tried this…”, but still did not use his pencil. They came up with a lot of ideas and they talked a lot. They also thought a lot, and there were long quiet moments. They did not finish the problem. After an hour, they said good-bye. Two days later, they picked it up again and continued. They have not finished the problem in any traditional way. I don’t know if they will, and I don’t care. As Burkhart says in the prelude to these problems, they are “solving to learn, not learning to solve.”

One of the great things about the Intrepid Math Sets on is that they begin with a challenging question but also include questions that are more accessible and extending. If your child gets frustrated with the initial challenge, you can direct them to the simplified version of the problem. If they fly through the challenge, they can take it further with deeper questions. You may be familiar with the idea of flow – this is when we lose ourselves in focusing on something that is just the right level of challenge, not too easy and not too hard. Help your child find that Goldilocks spot!

Now…I realize that this worked for my kid because I set it up for him, and though I didn’t teach him anything, I was present to coach and ask questions periodically. You may not have the time for that right now. You may also not have another child with whom to connect your kid. That is fine. Maybe your child works alone. Maybe you do this as learners together. Maybe you can share with your child’s school teacher and ask for suggestions. Find a way that works for your unique situation.



Photo credit: on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND


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