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The struggle with math learning; handling children's lies; last week at the GenWise Club ++ #1

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and collaborating on this.

This week’s main post highlights key insights on why math learning is a struggle for some students and what can be done about it, from our panel discussion on this topic last month.

You are invited to be an early member and beta-tester of the GenWise Club, a community of interested students, parents, and educators. You can register here if interested. More about the club in section 2.

Join this conversation on learning by commenting on our posts, or joining our club community for more regular and closer interactions.


Main Post- The Struggle with Math Learning

Last Week at the GenWise Club

Upcoming Events (both external and GenWise events)

Parenting Tips- Handling Children’s Lies

The Struggle with Math Learning

This post is based on our conversation with 3 Math educators- Sundaram, an ex-principal, Mick Purcell, head of school at KC High, Chennai, and Jayasree Subramanian, a math educator who is currently pursuing a PhD in Math Education. Watch the full conversation here.

What leads to Math Anxiety?

For many children, math anxiety is a real thing. There are various factors that lead to this. One of the biggest reasons is adult generated anxiety- it is not uncommon for parents and teachers to say that they don’t like Math. Educators saying this is not healthy- this legitimises the impression that ‘Math is difficult/ boring’. Also, given the importance of Math in so many domains, it is the job of educators to help children feel confident about Math and gain a strong grasp of the fundamentals.

An educator who says ‘I don’t like Maths’ is like a surgeon who says ‘I don’t like to wash my hands’… teaching Math & numeracy is a fundamental part of our job.. numeracy, data sensitivity, understanding numbers, communicating rationally, logical reasoning and analysis- these are all fundamental skills in any field- so we have to generate positive attitudes towards Math.- Mick Purcell

Mick speaks here about this issue.

When children in middle and high school are struggling with Math. most of the time, the issue is with foundational numeracy skills- knowing your multiplication tables, felicity with fractions and percentages and so on. Math learning has to be scaffolded, with one concept or skill being built on another- skipping steps doesn’t work. If one has skipped steps, one has to go back to the beginning and start over.

One of the reasons students reach middle and high school without foundational numeracy skills is that the time spent on Math in the curriculum has decreased over the years. According to Mick, some estimates show that 30 years ago, 20 % of learning time was available to Math, which has now shrunk to only 9 % . With less time available for Math, the child’s grasp of the fundamentals is shaky and this can lead to a vicious cycle of math avoidance leading to further math anxiety.

To make things worse, performance in Math is also seen as a measure of intelligence. Thus if a child has math anxiety this also affects his or her confidence in other subjects. Therefore it is critical that educators and parents work with children to help them develop a joyful and friendly relationship to Math.

What can we do about this?

Create a joyful environment a happy relationship with Math

A child doesn’t have to be ‘great at math’ to enjoy working on math. It is entirely possible to create a joyful environment in math classrooms (as many teachers are already doing), or at home if parents work with children. Grant Sanderson, founder of 3Blue1Brown shares in this TedX talk that the top 2 most popular videos on their youtube channel are about challenging puzzles and have stories that draw you in. He says that this ‘story that you draws you in’ is a far greater attractor for people to engage in math than even relevance to real life.

And engaging math challenges are possible at every level, whether it is grade 3 or pre-school. Everybody can ‘build their own math’ and providing each child an opportunity to do this is at the core of developing a joyful relationship to Math.

We can offer tasks that have something in it for every child (low floor/ high ceiling)…… like exploring the smallest square that can be made by using dominoes of a certain dimension… give children a taste of building their own math… they feel very proud of making discoveries…. we then have ‘Nishant’s theorem’ and ‘Neha’s rule’…this brings the joy back into the Math class.- Jayasree Subramanian

Jayasree speaks about this here.

Develop the ability for abstract thinking by using concrete materials appropriately

According to Piaget’s theory of developmental stages, children usually start to develop the ability to work with abstract symbolic representations around age 11. (They of course work with simpler abstractions at a very young age, even the idea of a number like 5 designating 5 objects is abstract). Given this, the appropriate use of concrete materials is extremely effective in helping children learn math, especially at the primary and pre-primary level. A classic example of this are the Montessori golden beads, used to teach place value.

Sundaram speaks here about the innate capacity of humans for abstract reasoning and how this can be developed through the use of appropriate materials.

Take time to build the foundation and speed things up later

Take more time in the beginning (primary) and speed up later. If a joyful relationship has been built, this could lead to the child spending more time on math/ building foundational numeracy. If you are a school, see if you can find creative ways to get children to spend more time on Math in a fun way.

Reduce the curriculum in primary and speed up the curriculum in grades 6-7…It’s like a car, you don’t start at 30 kmph, you start at 5 kmph and then accelerate..- Sundaram Subbharatnam

Sundaram speaks here about the importance of allowing time to build the foundations. His tweet below makes the same argument using another analogy.

1/ Formation of concepts is like laying a foundation for a house. If it needs to soak in water for 20 days, there is no way to speed up the process. In contrast painting the house or laying the roof (i.e. middle & high school math) can be speeded up by extra classes or remedials — Primary Math is Easy by S Sundaram (@primary_is) March 3, 2021

Provide different pathways that allow all children to succeed

While a grasp of math basics (at least till grade 5 level and possibly till grade 8 level) is essential for all children, it is not necessary that all children learn abstract math beyond this level. International boards have been providing opportunities to study math at 2 levels for some years now and in 2020, CBSE has also introduced 2 levels of math in its 10th grade board examinations.

We don’t force every child to learn an instrument; so we don’t have to force every child to learn abstract algebra and trigonometry…particularly in this age where there are so many things they can learn- with data, with numbers, and computers…we can give a pathway where every kid can be successful. And children who love abstract math can be accelerated.- Mick Purcell

Mick speaks here about providing alternative pathways like in the Scandinavian system.

Last Week at the GenWise Club

This section contains a few tidbits from the posts over the last week from GenWise Club.

My Child Struggles in x Subject

In the #parent-oriented-discussions channel accessed by parents & instructors

Instructor Navin Kabra thought that the realization in this tweet is brilliant:

Parent Archana Natraj responded with a great memory:

I had a lovely maths teacher once say to us, “Don’t take stress. These marks are not your marks. They are my marks, to see how well I was able to teach you.” I have never forgotten that when I teach.

How would your child’s life change if more of their teachers thought this way?

What Next After Khan Academy?

In the #parent-oriented-discussions channel accessed by parents & instructors

Sal Khan, the creator of Khan Academy, has also created a physical school which is quite different from normal schools. Students are allowed to learn at whatever pace suits them, and of different ages are allowed to learn together if they are learning the same things.

Here’s a link to a podcast where Steven Levitt (co-author of Freakonomics) talks to Sal Khan about his newest venture. A day after we posted this, a parent in the club, Shally Subhash, responded that her daughter and her friend did a session on fractions and enrolled for some more courses on Sal’s new venture !

Question of the Day: Hanging Bananas

In the #question-of-the-day channel accessed by students, parents & instructors

One question of the day on GenWise Club last week was:

“You should always hang bananas instead of keeping them flat in a bowl because that makes them think that they are still on the tree and thus they ripen slowly” Is this a grandma’s superstition, or could there be any scientific basis for this?

Hanging bananas does indeed increase the shelf life of bananas by slowing down the ripening process, but how is it possible? What do you think? Share your answer by clicking on the button below and starting your reply with #bananas.

Join the Club

It takes a village to raise a child… and we aim to build a larger and richer village! Students, parents, educators, experts are part of this curious community, where learning is always a joy and never a burden. Club members interact through text channels, voice and video in a safe closed environment, on an ongoing basis.

The club is very much a young baby and like young babies, develops new capabilities every week! The newest addition to club activities is a weekly 45 minute conversation with Dr. Bhooshan Shukla, renowned child and adolescent psychiatrist and parenting coach (see his tips on handling children’s lies below). Participation in this weekly session is open to all past participants of any of his GenWise courses, for the next 3 months.

Membership to the club is free till June/ July 2021 and a membership fee will become applicable after that. You can register here to be a volunteer and beta-tester for the club.

Upcoming Events

Talk to a scientist about computational medicine discovery. Sohini Chakraborti, a PhD student at IISc Bangalore, talks about how scientists discover & repurpose medicines, & how computers helps in medicine discovery! (For ages 6-16) Date: 10th April 2021, 5-6pm IST.

Dr. Nandini Chatterjee Singh (UNESCO/ NBRC) speaks about the history and the importance of cognitive neuroscience research in India. Her group at National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) works on investigating speech and language processing in individuals with autism as well as language networks in patients with primary brain tumour. Date: 13th April 2021, 130pm IST.

Dr. Vanita Shastri, Dean, Global Education and Strategic Programs, Ashoka University speaks about their upcoming Young Scholars Program for grades 9-12 in June 2021, on April 15, 2021 at 6 PM IST.

Several online courses are available from us at GenWise this summer. Apart from students, there are also courses on parenting for parents. See the list of upcoming courses here.

Parenting Tips- Handling Children’s Lies

This post is by Dr. Bhooshan Shukla (@docbhooshan) whom you can follow on twitter.

When children do something they are not supposed to, they know that what they have done is disapproved of by parents / teachers and given a choice they don’t want adults involved in the issue at all. But they don’t have a choice of how things proceed once adults are involved, and may resort to lies.

Lies fall in the following categories –

1. The child did something impulsively and now regrets it.

2. The child did something that they liked or wanted in spite of an adult warning and is convinced that it is okay to do so because that particular action should not have been banned in first place.

3. The child is deliberately lying with planning, to deceive someone. – this is most serious type.

The first two types of lies are actually a call for adults to introspect and re-evaluate their rules, regulations and expectations from the child. 

If an adult has found out that the child lied, one of the least painful ways is to tell the child directly in a matter of fact way and assign age and action appropriate consequences.

The longer you draw out the act of “confession”, the worse it is for you. Children are usually not as emotional about these confessions as adults. Most kids treat this as a normal part of living in a world that is controlled by adults.

Even corporal punishment (beating up) does not change things for children. Torture of any kind just convinces the child that they must make better efforts to hide things from adults.

If you are a calm person, it is better to ask the child- can I help you in any way so that this doesn’t happen again? If the child refuses help, by way of remaining quiet, it is better to let them be. Any system invented and imposed by an adult without the child’s spontaneous participation is bound to fail. 

The real challenge for adults is – 1. Re-evaluating their expectations 2. Not getting emotional and moral about the child hiding things from them. Remember that children are not criminals. 3. Assigning appropriate consequences when you are convinced about the child’s mistake.

The most crucial thing to remember is – a lying child is not growing up to be a dishonest and criminal person. 


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