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Mortensen Maths

by Beverley Paine, 1999

I was asked on an online forum if I knew anything about Mortensen Maths.

Years ago, in our early years, we did Mortensen maths. I did a workshop with Mr Mortensen, an inspiring an ex-potato farmer from Idaho who became a reluctant Montessori teacher (I think to avoid the USA army draft, but my memory might be playing tricks.) He studied in Europe under Maria Montessori's son and was successful at getting his teaching diploma. Once in the classroom, however, he discovered he hated teaching. After a disastrous half-year he decided to stop teaching and he started talking to the children like people. Together they came up with better ways of learning and enjoying maths. His system, Mortensen Maths is good, I think, in so far as a school learning method goes.

It is very structured, and uses 'hand-ons' materials extensively. Maths problems are set out in cheaply printed booklets. The children use the materials in a structured way to work through the problems. The problems are illustrated on the page, representing the materials as if the children were manipulating them. It is easy to follow. The children look at the images and then physically manipulate the materials. Eventually the children see the written problem, manipulate the materials and write down the answer. Ultimately the concept is that children will eventually 'see' the manipulation in their minds and not need to use their hands at all. Using the hands to move objects helps the understanding of the maths principles.

We bought a classroom set, so we could build fantastic towers with them. During the parent workshop Mr Mortensen showed us how to teach basic number facts by building towers. When we ran out of plastic coloured bricks I added our Cuisenairre and wooden M.A.B. blocks.

He also showed how to solve quadratic equations using the blocks. To see teachers struggle with a quadratic equation on paper (all the teachers in the workshop were primary and most feared fractions!) then solve it in seconds by simply rearranging blocks was gratifying! I enjoyed finally understanding exactly what I was doing all those years ago!

Long Division was a breeze too. I used to like going into school and asking ten year olds to do impossible sums and then show them how to get the answer in seconds just moving bricks around. They were impressed. It is a nice parlour trick. A bit like magic, but it certainly raised one young students self esteem around his maths ability and gave him a tool to cope with his lessons.

Our eldest used Mortensen Maths from about age 7. She has a very sound mathematical understanding. She completed all 7 levels available at the time, including algebra. It wasn't like algebra in normal school books though. There is a lot of drill, repetitive drill, to work through, so you learn the process. She started on calculus at the same time and that really emphasised the relationship side of maths; how one things changes as another does. Most of the work in the booklets focused on building up a thorough understanding of the four math functions.

The method really does work, and is great for us olds who never really understood why we do the things we do on paper with fractions, multiplication and division.

Frank Smith once wrote that it is easier to learn to read once you can read though, and that phonics only makes sense then. I think the same thing can be said of maths. It only makes sense, the stuff we are taught from books, even Mortensen method, when we are ready to, when we have some kind of pre-understanding to work with. This was my feeling.

Our eldest sone did about four levels of Mortensen Maths and our youngest about about two, but that was the age of five. We unschooled after that.

Like most school educational materials it wasn't cheap but like most resources it did become available on special regularly. The materials are most expensive, about the same price as LEGO. I bought our set at the workshop for half price: $350. That was in 1989. The booklets were extra, and cost 50c each.

From what I've seen of MathsUSee the materials are almost identical. I'm not sure about the workbooks.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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