Jane Boswell review

Reprinted with permission from the author
Reviewed by Jane R. Boswell

Now you know I am very careful about endorsing anything that looks like formal curriculum for the very young child. However, ShillerLearning caught my attention and I think it's a worthwhile program for parents of young children (ages 4 - 8) to seriously consider. Creator, Larry Shiller, MIT math major, and self-confessed numbers-nerd has provided everything a parent needs - free of charge - to sample before they purchase. You can call a toll-free number (888-556-MATH) and ask for samples or go directly to their web site: to investigate this Montessori-influenced program. (Look for ShillerLearning at your local homeschool conference.)

ShillerLearning is designed for the parent who wants to provide a fun and CORRECT start in arithmetic while imparting a genuine comfort level with math experiences to the young child. The goal is that this will translate into future math success (and ideally, success in many areas).

ShillerLearning caught my attention because:
1. It works WITH and RESPECTS the natural curiosity and learning inclinations of young children.
2. It recognizes the developmental needs of children and the kinesthetic approach which is the natural way children learn. (Shiller warns against computer programs and the popular push toward abstract concepts before the all-important concrete understanding is cemented - and I agree.)
3. It emphasizes the importance of the tutorial, one-on-one teaching method that is ideally suited to parent and child
4. The materials are very well designed, durable, and aesthetically pleasing.
5. The ShillerLearning folks provide more than adequate support and educationally sound help for parents: step-by-step, clear instructions, guidance on working with young children (including dos and don'ts), five hours of toll-free telephone support, and online access to supplements, activities and more.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Shiller and the Montessori-minded developers of this program have left nothing to chance. Everything is provided in the full kit, which is the purchase I do recommend. Although the initial investment might seem hefty at around $399.95 - REMEMBER - it covers 4 to 5 full years of arithmetic instruction (from the pre-kindergarten level to at least 3rd grade) and is ideal for the budget-conscious family with more than one child [check for current speicals; you can often save as much $100 on a kit]. Additionally, parents can feel secure in the knowledge that they are presenting the topics and concepts correctly, with no 'holes, gaps or surprises'. Individual sets and materials can be ordered separately if needed or preferred and free samples are available to try out. (Note: even if you are delaying formal instruction, this program can be easily adapted for the older 'beginner'.)

The full kit includes: Three durable (you'll see this word often) spiral-bound work-texts (over 450 activities including craft projects), an audio CD with 25 math concept and movement songs, 12 diagnostic tests, hundreds of worksheets (in handy letter-size pads), storage binder, and the complete set of manipulatives:
o Dice
o Complete Base 10 Block Set ( durable plastic)
o Measuring cups (proper sizes for dry and liquid)
o Paper 1000 cubes (16)
o Clock
o Cloth bag (for hiding items)
o Plastic coins
o Set of dominoes (54 in a handy wooden box)
o Mirror
o Various colorful wooden shapes (100)
o Balance (for weights, volume, measures and comparisons)
o Ruler
o Durable plastic number tiles
o Durable plastic number card sets
o Durable plastic operators (+, -, >, etc.)
o Foam ball
o Wooden trays to store/ sort number sets
o Large mat for child's work/activity space

In the full kit, everything needed for using the program is provided - right down to the crayons, pencils, pen and the essential Montessori mat. This provides a center for the child's activity area, helping him to focus and have a non-slip area to work with dice, blocks, shapes and dominoes. The child soon learns that this is his own work area, returning items to their proper places after finishing with them, and before starting something new.

While writing this review, I popped the audio CD (written by Ron and Nancy Brown) into the computer for a listen and was very pleased with the quality and catchy (non-abrasive) tunes, easy-to-remember lyrics, and lively creativity. The audio CD includes songs and movement activities used in the program but I know it will become a favorite to listen to in the car or to pick-up-toys by!

One of the selling points for me was the parent-friendly approach. A sure thing I've learned from my experience working with homeschooling parents for over 20 years, is that they are not easily impressed by "scopes and sequences" and "educationese". They want to be able to look at a program, understand it, and know in short order how to use this with their child. And ShillerLearning scores high in my book in this area. After opening the kit and familiarizing yourself with all of its goodies, it will take you less than half an hour to browse the spiral bound texts, (Bonus: these are high quality, spiral-bound which will lay flat for ease of use), assemble the activity worksheets into the binder, find a convenient place to create your child's work/activity center (your child should help) and feel confident that you know what you're doing!

Shiller uses a Montessori philosophy as well as the highly successful incremental approach (learning in bite-sized chunks with consistent review and reinforcement.) The famous Montessori, multisensory, step- by-step, success-ensuring method if used consistently, works exceedingly well in early learning. As I mentioned, the whole approach works WITH the child while giving him clear, simple direction and helping him discover the correct answers. As the Parent Guide states, "We believe that an answer is the final result to a problem... There may be many ways to get there, but there is still only one right answer. A solution presents the answer and also the strategy by which it was found. ShillerLearning uses real life objects, large and small motor skills, catchy songs whose words cement important math principles, and activities that are small and bite-sized. Children learn both process and accuracy in an enjoyable way that keeps them motivated."

The parent guide is concise but gives friendly, wise guidance about working with young children. Each activity in the work-texts includes ample instruction to the parent and a fail-safe way of presenting concepts and topics to the child. Emphasis is placed on the "processes", "keeping a sense of humor", "praise", "maintaining an atmosphere of enthusiasm", and limiting the activity time to brief periods or in keeping with the maturity level of the child.

I was very impressed with the help available to the parent which includes an online Parent Resource Center full of tips, updates, more crafts and activities to download (in PDF) and print out. The program comes with a 30 day money back guarantee. These people are really serious about making sure you and your child succeed. Larry Shiller is passionate about math and believes that children can learn to love numbers and arithmetic in an easy, fun, successful way and if that happens that their future math successes will be guaranteed.