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.