Using bedtime stories to tackle math

“Bedtime Math.” Photos: Murphy Stidham.

By Murphy Stidham and Kathleen Bajalia |
Counting more than just sheep before sleep can help parents teach their children math skills.
A new iPad app turns solving math problems into a game. “Bedtime Math” makes learning math less intimidating for parents and children, according to an article in Science, a leading journal for scientific news.
In October, the University of Chicago tested the app in the homes of nearly 600 first-graders in Chicago.  The study found that parents who worked on math problems with their children at night instead of reading them bedtime stories put their children three months ahead of their peers in math over a nine-month period.
Educational experts applaud the results, but say more investigation is needed to better understand how the new approach works.
Investigate is just what we did. We took the app to families in St. Augustine, Florida, to find out how well it worked. Ten-year-old Madison Pillen and her mother Katrina Carroll said they enjoyed “Bedtime Math.”
First we gave Pillen some 4th-grade math word problems to assess her skills. She passed with flying colors, but her mom, Carroll says math is her child’s most difficult subject.
“It’s our worst subject. Right now her grade in math is a C or D,” says Carroll.
Carroll’s math skills are antiquated and she struggles to help her daughter with her homework.
“She’s trying to teach me and I’m trying to teach her, so it’s difficult sometimes because I was only taught one way to divide and she was taught many,” says Carroll.

Madison Pillen, left, and Katrina Carroll use “Bedtime Math” app. Photo: Murphy Stidham

Madison Pillen, left, and Katrina Carroll use “Bedtime Math” app.

Learning how children today solve math problems while also trying to teach it to her child is strenuous and stressful for many parents. “Bedtime Math” teaches parents to discuss math with their child without anxiety.
Pillen says the word problems on the app are a mixture of difficult and easy. “These aren’t the types of questions we get at school.”
Carroll says the app explains the problems better than the homework her daughter gets from school. “This one is a little bit more complex,” she says. “It goes more into the different layers of adding and subtracting.”

Madison Pillen working on practice word problems. Photo: Murphy Stidham

Madison Pillen working on practice word problems.

“Bedtime Math” is aimed at giving parents the confidence they need to help their children.
“Children’s emerging language skills are supported when their caregivers read to them at home. Math skills, however, are often relegated to the schools,” Sian Beilock told Science.
Beilock is the author of the study on “Bedtime Math” and a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. She has written books and has led studies focusing on how the brain, mind and body support learning and why performance breaks down in high-stress, high-pressure situations. She is one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind public speaking, test-taking anxiety and even one’s golf swing. She writes about these topics in her book, “Choking Under Pressure.”
Most of her studies take place at the Human Performance Lab, which she found.
“What I hope my research can do is provide people with some knowledge so that they can apply the psychological tools that we have been discovering, to perform better, especially when it matters most,” Beilock says in the University of Chicago’s Brain Teasers series.
John Maunsell, a professor of neurobiology and director of Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, works closely with Beilock in developing technology to connect with the brain. “We are trying to really understand the core of the brain,” Maunsell says in the Brain Teaser series.
Maunsell says once man has an understanding what makes up a thought, the precise interaction that occurs between cells, structures and nuclei in the brain, “everything else is going to fall into place behind it.”
He and other scientists hope their research will also help reduce anxiety.
“Bedtime Math” does just that by mixing something as tedious as a math problem with the beauty of a bedtime story.

“Bedtime Math” app featured on the iPad.

“Bedtime Math” app featured on the iPad.

In Florida, most students are not prepared for math when entering college. State data shows more than half of high school graduates who take the college placement test have to take at least one remedial class. Teachers say this is why it is so important to start tutoring kids in grade school.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a law in April 2015 that will place new limits on standardized tests. Parents who claim standardized testing has been ruining their kids’ education believe this law could be a blessing in disguise.
Instead of taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, Florida students now have to take the Florida Standards Assessment, or FSA.
The rules have also changed, Carroll says. “You have to pass in the 3rd grade to move on” to the next grade.
Carroll says the new app will help because “for math, all it’s going to be is word problems on FSA.”
Her child isn’t the only one who is worried about the FSA. According to the Florida Department of Education, students throughout Florida are struggling to move on to the next grade.
We also took “Bedtime Math” to Ponte Vedra, Florida, where we met the Howard family.
Shannon Howard, 10, and her sister, Sienna, 9, said they liked the app. One of their classmates, Brianna Freedman, 10, says the app did not really help her because she already excels at math. “I already know everything.”
Jay Howard, father of the two girls, says, “If it keeps them interested, yes, we like it.”
He and his wife, Ursula, said “Bedtime Math” was interesting and fun. “I like that it deals with the subject matter. They incorporate it with a story although the problems don’t really pertain to the story,” she said.

Sienna Howard reading a story on the “Bedtime Math” app.

Sienna Howard reading a story on the “Bedtime Math” app.

Ursula Howard says she sometimes has trouble with the math problems that the girls bring home. “I did better on this than I do on paper,” she says of the app. “On paper I get too confused with the words.” She says the app makes math easier because it is fun.
She says the app seems more like a game than a homework assignment. Sienna says, “It’s cool. You barely even realize you are doing math because you are kind of reading, too.”
The app feels like a game because it has elaborate illustrations and sound effects, but those effects are there for more than just show.

Sienna Howard, left, and Ursula Howard use the “Bedtime Math” app.

Sienna Howard, left, and Ursula Howard use the “Bedtime Math” app.

1-r5bZ57AXQInkgttnLFtQzwThe sound effects help trigger memories. For instance, when the kids are doing a math problem at school that involves subtraction, they may remember the sound that was on the app to help them remember the correct way to subtract.
The Howard sisters say they use a tutoring tool called “Reflex Math” at their school, Ocean Palm Elementary. They say “Bedtime Math” is similar to it, but more effective and fun.
“Reflex helps you on school facts, not word problems,” Sienna says.
“Bedtime Math” helps students solve word problems, which may boost their scores on the FSA.
Says Shannon: “I’m going to tell my teacher about this. This is way more fun than school.”

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