Review: Life of Fred Pre-algebra

I’ve never taught Pre-algebra.  I’ve taught Algebra.  I’ve taught all the math that comes before it, at least what Singapore Math comes before Algebra.  But Pre-algebra?

I had no need, until this year.  My younger is a hair away from the end of Singapore 6B and doing just fine, but for an assortment of reasons that deserve their own post, I’d like to delay a full, rigorous Algebra program.  He’s fairly mathematically talented but not terribly interested, and since we’re not in a race, I thought we’d take the scenic path to the Big Four (Algebra, Geometry, Trig/Pre-calculus, and Calculus). He also has the Algebra jitters, and I’d like to see him more confident before launching into one of my favorite classes.

So after considering a variety of choices and hearing so many accolades for Stanley Schmidt’s Life of Fred series, I secured copies of Life of Fred Pre-algebra I and II.  My ten-year old was thrilled.  We’d snuggled on the couch enjoying The Adventures of Penrose, the Mathematical Cat by Theoni Pappas, and he was certain more math on the couch with Mom and Fred would be equally delightful.  So we settled into the first volume.

Life of Fred is math told in story form.  Each chapter at this level is a few pages of story/biology or economics/math followed by about three to ten problems and questions in the section “Your Turn to Play.”  Answers immediately follow the questions, and we found covering them with an index card kept one from taking in the answers while working the problems.  After seven or eight chapters, a set of five tests of sorts (“The Bridge”) appears.  According to the book, the student should continue to attempt these ten-question tests until mastering one with an 80%.  Then the student can move on to the next section.  Looking back for assistance on all of the tests is encouraged.  At the end of the book, are five “Final Bridge” exams, with twenty-one questions each.

All the books tell the story of Fred.  Fred is a five-year-old mathematical genius who teaches at KITTENS University and sleeps under his desk.  In Pre-algebra I, the story revolves around gardening (in Fred’s office) and a scandalous, swindling shopping mall owner.  The story is interspersed with brief descriptions of sets, volumes of various solids, the five kingdoms of living thing, a smattering of genetics, a bit of algebraic equations, and more.  Evolution in not on the topic list (and the author points that out in the introduction).  Far more biology surfaces in this book than math, although most of the problems to work are mathematical.

No risk that I’ll give away the ending of Pre-algebra I.  We lost interest midway through. Actually, I lost interest in Chapter 3, but my son hung in until the halfway point.  The science is sound, if rather scattered and incomplete. The story was far from compelling, at least to the two of us.  I’ve heard from those who’ve used Fred for the preceding Fractions and Decimals books that those earlier volumes are far more focused and interesting.  And while I’ve read on message boards that some families manage to make Life of Fred their entire math curriculum, for many folks it seems to be a supplement.  If my son had enjoyed it, I suppose we’d have stuck with it as supplement, a way to vamp a bit before Algebra — The Real Thing.

But he didn’t enjoy it, so we stopped.  Perhaps our problem stemmed from not having used prior volumes of Fred. Not that I felt we were missing parts of the story, but the scattershot of math and biology often left me explaining details the author omitted.  I understood that issue when set theory tripped him up (none of that in the elementary Singapore) — that was some of why I decided to try the series.  Sets, a bit of probability, and those sorts of odds and ends are what we need.  Unfortunately, there was precious little of that math — or any math — to be found in Pre-Algebra 1.  The biology was sound, but it’s largely vocabulary (solipsism, proprioceptors, hexaploid, pleotropic genes) amongst interesting biological facts, not ground-up biology that will provide a strong base for future studies.

Yes, I was disappointed.  I was disappointed four years back when my older tried Life of Fred Advanced Algebra.  I can’t recall all the details of that break-up with that piece of curriculum, but I do know my older son’s learning style did not jibe with the series either.  Perhaps it’s just us.  Life of Fred is designed to be self-taught, and we just don’t do that with math.  I have two mathematically talented kids, but they like interaction with a human for math.  I like it that way.  Math deserves conversation. Certainly one could do that with Life of Fred, but it is definitely a sit-and-read kind of series, not a work-at-the-white-board one.

Life of Fred offers books for an ever-expanding range of ages, now starting with early elementary math and reaching to Calculus and Linear Algebra.  Obviously Schmidt is doing something right with this unique approach to math.  But it’s not for us.  We’ll continue to take our time at this point of my younger son’s math education, but instead of Fred we’ll reach for Zaccaro’s Challenge Math (and later Real-Life Algebra), more from Theoni Pappas, and other diversions yet to be discovered.


8 thoughts on “Review: Life of Fred Pre-algebra

  1. I was hoping it will be received much more enthusiastically in your home than it did in mine. Sorry it didn’t work out! And I forgot to wish you Happy New Year! Hope you’re having a good 2012 so far!

  2. Thanks for that review! I have considered LOF in the past but did not know how jumping into the Prealgebra level would go. I think I will keep looking!

  3. My older son has an odd relationship with the Life of Fred series. He WANTS to love it, but it always falls short for him. When I first came across it a few years ago, it sounded like a perfect fit for him. I purchased Fractions and Decimals and Percents. He enjoyed the story line in Fractions, but needed more in math instruction than the books offered. Because my son is also not a fan of Singapore Math (my youngest loves it) we ended up switching over to Key Curriculum Press. He’s currently working his way through both the Decimals and Fractions books and will begin their Algebra series sometime next year.
    I’m glad to hear we are not the only family finding this series a bit lacking. I was starting to think we were the only ones!

  4. Suji and Michelle, I’m glad to know I’m not alone. It’s hard to review a (even newly) sacred cow in a less-than-positive way, wondering if I somehow missed the point or just don’t have the brains to figure out what’s so great about it. Michelle, each child is different. It may be the best lesson I’ve learned from parenting my kids. Singapore has actually worked for both, but it’s about the only thing that has.

    MB, glad we saved you a step. When you find the a good approach to what for some kids is a challenging transition, let me know. Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics remains a possibility here if I’m not too chicken to commit to a different approach to HS math.

  5. I decided to jump into RightStart to help my dyslexic kiddo get fluent with math facts before moving on to Pre-Algebra, and while Level E isn’t challenging enough it is a pleasant-enough way to achieve the fluency goal. I’ve heard that their pre-algebra (which is new) may need some more fine tuning, but RightStart is very much written as a conversation between adult and child, claiming to support a deep understanding rather than memorizing algorithms (with a full script if you want to follow it). It would be great if you happened to preview that one for us. 😉 Thanks for saving us the trouble on Life of Fred – I’d previewed some of the materials and what I saw jibes with your review.

  6. Terrific review. We love Life of Fred at our house, but I cannot imagine you are missing anything in particular. Thank goodness there are so many roads leading to Rome, even covered as they are with sacred cows . . . 😉 Great to have the choices.

  7. I think your review was very fair. We happen to love Fred at our house, and as people who do math and biology professionally, we find more math in the pre-algebra books than in many other curricula, BUT if the way it is presented doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for you. There are other options out there that earn high praise from others that our family would never touch; it’s not really about whether the math is there (the math is definitely in Fred) but finding the best fit for your kids. That is why we need not only more than one curriculum available, but more than one review! :). I think you described it well when you pointed out that it is designed for independent use, but you are uncomfortable with independent learning in math, which makes Fred a poor fit, and the storyline dd not appeal to your son (name a book that everybody likes? That was a big risk taken by the author). I completely get that second point. My younger loves Fred, but HATES the Beast Academy samples… he thinks the comic book format is stupid. I don’t think anybody needs to avoid BA though, just because my kid dislikes the comic format; however if I write such a review, a parent might think to have her DC look at a sample chapter first to check the reaction.

    That is why I feel your review is, in balance, fair. Fred is an outstanding standalone (or supplemental) math program, but just not a good fit for your family, based on instructional approach and story appeal. We disagree on the content issue, but that’s okay ;). There is nothing wrong with you whatsoever– there are many excellent math programs left to choose from, none of which is inferior to Fred if your kids learn from them and don’t hate it!

    Btw, love your blog!

    • Thanks, Jen, for your perspective. I think our measure of the content has to do with my son’s and my expectations and his previous knowledge. We’re a mathy family too (although not employed in it), and I’m in medicine, so we’re steeped in Biology as well. Looking at the book purely as a math book (which it is not but is what my son would have preferred), it’s light on math for its length. Also, I was expecting, quite frankly, more math that he didn’t know, as was he. For both my boys, if the content isn’t new, they are fairly quickly annoyed. For the first book of LOF Prealgebra, this was the case, and I had an annoyed child. For him the review content was too high. Perhaps, too, we want more math in our math and less of something else. Honestly, I found the level of biology taught to be far higher than the level of math taught. In my assessment biology is sound (although not taught in a pedagogical way I agree with). The math in this single book, to me, however,lacks rigor and depth and does not encourage deeper mathematical thinking. Since that’s what I want for a math curriculum, this book at this level wasn’t the one for us. (I do prefer to be active in my children’s math education, although I’m hardly averse to any independent learning in any subject.)

      Like you alluded to, different curricula works for different families — even for different children in the same family. From my sampling of families, I’ve noticed LoF is one of those programs that is either loved or, well, just not like as much. LoF has clearly made math far more enjoyable for a large number of kids, and that’s a success. I’m glad you’ve found what works for you and yours, and delighted that you enjoy my blog. Feel free to share your views anytime!

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