ShillerLearning Review

Reprinted with permission from the author
When the publisher asked me to review Shiller Math, she described it as being like Sing, Spell, Read & Write for math. So I (who love SSR&W and math) jumped on it! And she was right!

Everything that you need to teach arithmetic to your preschool through second grade child comes in a huge box. You get a parent guide, three activity books, tons of worksheets (number charts, addition and multiplication sheets, counting pads), the best looking base ten set I've ever seen, a balance, double-nine dominos, number and operation cards, wooden sorting trays, measuring cups, plastic coins, a sturdy mirror, a geared clock, dice, a foam ball, wooden shapes, a place mat, an audio CD, a binder, pens, pencils, crayons, a ruler, and the 2003 Encyclopedia Britannica CD-Rom. Wow! The quality of the materials is excellent, with the exception of two or three items: the foam ball is cheap, but any ball will do; I like my heavy, white dominos better than the black painted ones included in the set; and the balance is lightweight plastic (but it does the job just fine). Otherwise, you will be very pleased with the materials. I have spent HUNDREDS of dollars individually buying the types of materials included in Shiller Math.

The CD included with the kit has twenty-five math songs written especially for Shiller Math. Each song is introduced at the appropriate point in the curriculum. Concepts that are covered in the songs include right and left; counting to five; even and odd; rows and columns; shorter or longer; directions (north, south, east, and west); multiples of two, three, four, and five; probability; square numbers; division; months and days; mass; and area.

So now that you have opened the box and played with all your new toys, how do you begin using Shiller Math with your child? If you are starting with a four- or five-year-old, just open up to page one, and start reading. Fully scripted lessons take the fear away from math-phobic parents and ensure that your child will understand the math concept being introduced. Or, if you are starting with a child who already has some experience with math, give him the first review test and see how he does. Then, go back and do those lessons that cover concepts he does not understand. If he scores 100%, try test two. Keep going until he hits a point where he needs a lot of help, and start at that point.

Shiller Math is based on the Montessori philosophy and was edited by the Princeton Center for (Montessori) Teacher Education. I called Larry Shiller and asked him what makes Shiller Math Montessori-based, and he outlined five key areas. First, Shiller Math encourages parents to treat their children with as high a level of respect as given to other adults. This may seem elementary, but for me it was not. I will be honest here. I often get very frustrated with my children when they don't "get it", and I sometimes say things that I am too embarrassed to repeat here! The parent guide gives common situations you might face while teaching your child (child makes mistake, child is frustrated, child is restless, etc.) and offers respectful phrases to help you maintain respect without losing your authority. Respect for the child as a person is something Charlotte Mason also advocated, and is something I need to be frequently reminded of. Secondly, Shiller uses the Montessori approach of moving from concrete to abstract using manipulatives and songs. Thirdly, Shiller Math is multisensorial; children get to see, feel, and hear math. Both gross and fine motor skills are practiced through use of manipulatives and action songs from the CD. Next, Montessori methods usually discourage testing, but Larry Shiller disagrees with this approach. Rather, Mr. Shiller believes that testing should be diagnostic. Children should not need to do every activity in the book, and testing can show parents which areas need attention. Last of all, a large, white felt mat is used during lessons to focus a child's attention on the task at hand. I liked this idea very much; it definately helped my children stay focused.

Shiller Math is different from many math programs in that there are no complete daily lesson plans. Rather, you work with your child for an amount of time, doing only those activities that he needs. There are twelve sections in the complete Shiller Math program, with a review test at the end of each section. Using the review tests as diagnostic tools allows you to pick and choose activities based on your child's needs. Altogether there are over 450 activities in the Shiller Math program. It is designed to be used over a four year period, from preschool through second grade. They recommend spending about 15 minutes per day with four-year-olds, 20 minutes with kindergartners, 25 minutes with first graders, and 30 minutes with second graders. This seems very reasonable to me, and I actually prefer the time limit to a set amount of work on a worksheet page.

Another difference between Shiller Math and other programs is that there is not a separate teacher's edition. The activity books include both the teacher's script and student pages. Personally, I would prefer separate books for two reasons. First, many homeschoolers want to re-use materials with younger children. Shiller Math does offer free downloads of the consumable pages in the activity books, so families with multiple children can reuse this program. But I would rather have them come separately. Secondly, sometimes the answer is given right below the problem, which may cause difficulties if you have a good reader! To remedy this, you may need to cover up the answers with a piece of paper. These concerns over the activity books are in no way a big negative to me, however. Much of the student work is done either with manipulatives or on separate paper anyway. The kit comes with several pads of worksheets that are used often. There is an addition pad, a multiplication pad, a 0-99 number chart with a blank grid on the back, a 1-100 number chart with a blank grid on the back, and a counting pad. Each pad has 48 pages, and you can download additional copies if needed. I really like how Shiller Math uses these sheets. Ruth Beechick highly recommends using number charts to teach math to young children, and Shiller Math makes extensive use of them.

Now some may be asking, "But what exactly will my child learn using Shiller Math?" The list of concepts includes addition and subtraction, cardinal and ordinal numbers, counting (forwards/backwards, skip), direction, multiplication and division, equations, estimation, geometry, measurement, perimeter, area, mass, volume, money, probability, Roman numerals, rules, sets, time, mental math, problem solving, and more.

My own experience is based on using Horizons Math from kindergarten through second grade, Saxon Math 1 through Saxon 65, and short forays into Miquon and Singapore. Compared to drill programs like Horizons and Saxon, Shiller Math covers much of the same content with much less time and work. Children are expected to memorize their facts once they have fully understood the concepts, however there is simply not as much drill as Horizons or Saxon. With Shiller Math your child will actually make his own addition/subtraction and multiplication/division charts, but you may want to supplement with actual drill sheets.

In many ways, Shiller Math reminds me more of Miquon and Singapore in that children really come to understand the meaning of numbers. For example your child will learn about the number 11 using Roman numerals (XI), using coins (one dime and one penny), using dominos (2+9, 3+8, 4+7, 5+6), using place value materials (one ten and one unit), and using Arabic numerals (11). I really like how children get to see numbers from lots of different angles, which in turn should make them better mathematical thinkers. In my opinion, Shiller Math seems to be a balanced mix of drill (like Saxon) and logic (like Singapore). It is important, however, to review old concepts frequently to make sure your child remembers what he has learned. Such review is not built into Shiller Math like it is in Saxon; you will have to provide such opportunities based on the diagnostic tests.

Shiller Math is a thorough, fun program, but it will not appeal to everyone. It is not a workbook program that your child sits down and does all by himself. But if you are willing to set apart 15 to 30 minutes a day to work with your child, he will surely learn math, and may even come to love it as much as Larry Shiller obviously does! Shiller Math offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee (excluding shipping costs). They also provide excellent telephone support and a wonderful website with tons of links and downloads available to their customers.

I asked Mr. Shiller which math program he recommends upon completion of ShillerLearning, and he said ShillerLearning for grades 3 through 5, which was released in early 2004. I think Shiller Math is set to become a big name among homeschoolers.

-- Product Review by Heather Jackowitz, Staff Writer, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine