Math Competition

We're going to enroll in competitive math this year. It's not so much competing in math as it is practicing timed tests. As you know, tests are everything...

Math Competition

We've been doing daily math now for almost 6.5 years. When I say 'daily', I mean a few times a week, but always on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because the iron clad rule in the house is 'No math, no computer.' When I say 'math', I might assign reading comprehension or programming. Regardless, this has resulted in a lot of math. We started dabbling in competitive math material in 2nd grade because there's no point in going ahead in academic math until after pre-algebra. Going ahead in long division just makes a kid dumber.

The mother of one of the new kids in school teaches math. She suggested we get a 5th grade team together and enroll in an upcoming competition. What a great idea. Unfortunately, she also suggested that one of our teachers lead the effort. This is a non-starter; why would anybody want to work on the weekends? In lieu of the team effort, we signing up for the Math Kangaroo competition in March, 2019.


In third grade we attempted Math Leads for Mathletes. The book is described as best suited for advanced fourth and fifth graders as well as for extremely talented third graders or for anyone preparing for AMC 8 or similar mathematics contests. I would describe it as 'insanely hard', even by my standards. We had little luck with the book in 3rd grade, even though we knocked off algebra and trig the next year. I knew we were in trouble when the term 20482048 appeared in a problem.

We are currently plodding through the problems on Not only does this website have a name based on a lame pun, but it has good problems. We are doing the problems in order and are up to #6. You may notice heavy doses of algebra and trig. My little competitor ignores the algebra and solves the problem anyway, and trig at this level boils down to a few simple equations which I can explain in an afternoon. So don't be put off by the subject matter. So what if it takes us 20 minutes to get through a single problem?

We're going to take another shot at the Mathletes book. The challenge is that each problem takes about 45 minutes if done properly. I suppose that I could figure out a way to speed things up, but math is the opposite of speed.

Plan B

As I mentioned, Kangaroo Math has a competition on March 21, 2019, so we're signing up. My son complained in a very high whiny voice, with a pitch only achievable by someone with a promising math career, the kind that dogs can hear, saying 'I'm not going to a math competition for 13 year olds!'. It's for all ages. He's going.

It turns out that there are other competition available in the Chicago area, including MathCON (another great name). We'll have to do all of them.

How to Win

In addition to a variety of math skills, the little competitor would benefit from calculating quickly and accurately. We do some of that in school, but never at home. Speed and accuracy are the enemy of real math, and I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize graduate school, where the ability to regurgitate learned behavior and apply formulas are a prescription for failure. A child who practices math facts today is the employee of tomorrow.

Nonetheless, taking a timed test is good practice. We'll have to overcome deficits in calculation skills by clever problem solving so we're doubling up on clever problem solving. I'd like to say I wrote the book on problem solving for this age, but I didn't write it yet. I spell it out on my other blog, but it's not a book. If you want the book, see Poyla's 'How to Solve It' and reduce it to the level of a 10 year old.

A week into this, we've switched over to released tests from some of the competitions. The problems are much higher quality. We learned a new problem solving skill! That makes 6. One of the math comp sites actually listed Poyla's problems solving techniques on their website, but only 4 of them, and not the most powerful of all, and certainly not the new strategy 6.

Competitive math is the only category of childhood where every participant is a winner. Someday, they'll all be sitting for multiple high school entrance exams, the PSAT, the SAT and the GRE. Competitive math tests are good practice. I don't draw any correlations between standing in the outfield at a little league game and future success in anything. But doing 22 out of 45 problems in math competition under time pressure is good practice for lots of things.

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