When I heard about the Life of Fred series, I decided to start by reviewing the Geometry text. The review of the Geometry text and other books from Fractions and Decimals and Percents and above are in a separate review. (Click here.) I repeat some of my general observations about the series in both reviews.
Two features immediately make this appealing to many families: low cost and courses designed for independent study. But there's much more to the Life of Fred books!
The books are written by Dr. Stanley Schmidt, a retired math teacher who loves math and wants to share his enthusiasm with students. Part of his strategy is to build his math books around the adventures of Fred, a very young (six years old in the Geometry text and five years old in the lower level books) genius who is a math teacher at KITTENS University. The stories shift from silly to serious, outlandish to edgy. (They can be edgy to the point where some parents might be uncomfortable with them such as the story where Fred is tricked into paying $100 for a snotty handkerchief in Goldfish.) They are likely to be very appealing to learners who prefer something more than "dry" math—students who like to “puzzle” things out.
Fred's adventures are the jumping off point for math lessons (e.g. Fred plays with his food and creates a polygon), or Fred might be pondering something mathematical, or teaching, or discussing a math topic with friends or students. The page illustration from the Farming book (lower left) shows Dr. Schmidt's creativity, this time in the way he presents the idea of “sets” with pictures rather than numbers. All of this makes these texts much more user-friendly than most others. It also means that it takes longer to get through the mathematical material.
Surprisingly, the story line and discursions are not used to dumb down the courses.
Each lesson teaches a concept, albeit sometimes in a roundabout fashion through the story. Then there's a "Your Turn to Play"—practice problems with complete answers and explanations if needed. Sometimes, he throws in some extra entertainment of information in the answer key. Your Turn to Play always shows up on a right hand page, and the answers are on the following page. (If you think your child might quickly flip to see answers in advance, try paper clipping the pages together.)
Throughout the series, Dr. Schmidt tries to teach for conceptual understanding rather than mere memorization of formulas and strategies. Students often see the practical application of a math concept before they learn how to solve the problem. Students are likely to begin thinking about math more like solving puzzles or critical thinking exercises than lists of problems to solve. The story of Fred is an important part of this approach.
The story of Fred is an important part of this approach, and it takes up significant space within each text. And while it sometimes meanders into entertainment unrelated to the math topic at hand, most of the time it stimulates students to consider how math might be used to deal with a real life situation. Some of the excursions are rather funny—maybe more so for adults than children. For example, after Fred’s ATM access code gets stolen and his checking account cleaned out, he realizes he has no budget for buying books. He imagines going without reading for three days:
This was too horrible to contemplate. Fred had once been at a lunch with a bunch of adults who were in the three-days-without-reading category. Their conversation was limited to: (1) My trip to Arizona. A complete description of all the bad things that happened on that trip. (2) The weather. (3) What I saw on television. (4) My kids. (5) Sports. (6) My health problems (Dogs, p. 75).
The storyline might be interesting enough to students that they plow through the books more quickly than you might imagine. However, children's interest spans vary, so it is difficult to predict how long it might take a child to complete any of the books.
One potential drawback I see in the elementary books is that the digressions and extraneous information might be overwhelming for some students, especially when Dr. Schmidt throws in something entirely new, such as a calculus equation, with no explanation.
Ten texts for the elementary grades—approximately kindergarten through fourth grade—are unusually titled with no grade level indicators: Apples, Butterflies, Cats, Dogs, Edgewood, Farming, Goldfish, Honey, Ice Cream, and Jelly Beans. They should be used in alphabetical order by the first letter of each title. While the first two books might be used by some kindergartners and first graders, they can also be used by older students who will work through them much more quickly. Students might complete two or more books per year. All students should work through the entire series since concepts taught in earlier books are frequently used in subsequent books. For example, the concept of functions is taught a few times in Dogs, then functions show up in problems beginning in chapter three of Edgewood without further instruction. Following are details regarding most of these books:
Before beginning Apples, students should have an understanding of the concept of addition and the symbols used in addition problems. For example, they should be able to “read” and understand “5 + 2 = 7.” This text, like the others, concentrates on concepts rather than computation practice and drill. Consequently, it teaches about the family of facts that add up to “7” but it doesn’t cover all the number families. It teaches the commutative property (without using that term), the concept adding x’s, counting by fives, counting by hundreds, money, time telling, sets, geometric shapes, cardinal numbers, days of the week and months, and the concept of zero. Along the way, students are introduced to other topics like the letters of the Greek alphabet, Archimedes, and compartmentalization on ships like the Titanic.
Butterflies adds the family of math facts that add up to nine, both addition and subtraction. It expands on many concepts introduced in the first book, especially identifying and working with large numbers and time telling. Students are introduced to concepts such as collinear points, infinite sets, some measurement equivalents, and counting by twos. You might have to explain some things that come up in the book such as negative temperatures.
Cats introduces the concepts of fractions, the metric system, and prime numbers. It continues with basic math with more addition and subtraction; counting by two’s, three’s, and five’s; patterns; angles; time telling; the concept of cardinality; measurement; place value; and representation of place value with small squares. The concept of carrying is very briefly introduced through pictures of arrays of small squares. Students might need a little more help to add 1 + 9999999 in a problem in chapter twelve. They’ve seen that 1 + 99 = 100, but they might not have grasped the full concept of carrying.
Dogs continues with more difficult addition, but mathematical thinking continues to be the main topic. Students work with algebraic expressions, becoming increasingly familiar with “x” in equations. The concept of multiplication is introduced as Fred figures out that shots for the 30 dogs he wants to rescue will cost $10 each. Carrying is taught at the end of this book. Interestingly, this book introduces the concept of functions, working on it through a number of lessons. I also noticed in this text that Dr. Schmidt actually teaches in the “Your Turn to Play” in at least one instance on p. 23 where he explains that “<” means less than then presents a problem using the symbol. The text does not use the symbol before this point.
While continuing to expand upon concepts previously taught, this text adds concepts such as the median average, bar graphs, the “>” symbol, percent (without applying multiplication), matrices, geometry (e.g., concurrent lines), and three-addend column addition with carrying.
Borrowing and multiplication show up in Farming along with concepts such as the union of sets, circumference of a circle, natural and whole numbers, domains and codomains, and π.
Goldfish goes much further with multiplication (up to multiplying by 10 or 100 but otherwise only by single-digit multipliers), addition with decimal points, estimating, cubic measurement, and area, while continuing to build on previously taught concepts.
Honey challenges students to master the multiplication facts either by making or purchasing flash cards. It also teaches division all the way through long division and remainders. Fractions are introduced along with concepts like time zones, d = rt problems, and the slope formula.
I don't have details for Ice Cream or Jelly Beans.
Three intermediate books—Kidneys, Liver, and Mineshaft—should be used after the elementary books and prior to Fractions and Decimals. These should generally be used around fourth and fifth grade, but many of the topics covered such as exponents and functions in Kidneys, should make them suitable for older students as well.
The progression and method of learning are unusual, and you might feel that your child is not doing enough math. But supplementing shouldn't be necessary. If you still want additional problem-solving practice, consider using games, manipulatives, or a creative problem-solving workbook rather than a traditional workbook. Note that calculators should not be used before Pre-Algebra in this series.
Dr. Schmidt recommends that students not begin Fractions, the course following the intermediate series, before fifth grade. The topic of fractions is introduced much earlier, so the Fractions course might be most appropriate for a student in junior high.
As I reviewed Life of Fred, I spotted at least a few references to the Bible and churches that indicate that the author likely has a Christian worldview, but I didn't find any overtly religious statements.
In spite of their low cost, all of the Life of Fred texts are hardcover books, printed in black-and-white with clip art and line-drawn illustrations. There are no separate teacher guides or answer keys to purchase. In addition, the texts are non-consumable and might be used again for subsequent students.
It is difficult to convey the full flavor of these texts in a review, but Dr. Schmidt does a marvelous job of helping students see the real value and applications of math. Sample pages are available at the publisher's website, so you can check out this unusual math series to see if it's right for your children.
See my review of "upper level" Life of Fred texts by clicking here.
A helpful comment from Robin Dickinson:
I wanted to make a suggestion about Life of Fred (which we tried thanks to you and we love). We are combining it with Professor B Math [http://profb.com/]. My son progressed easily through Apples and Butterflies but then got bogged down in Cats because of all the arithmetic concepts. So we stopped and reread Apples and Butterflies while working through Professor B. I would not consider Professor B a complete curriculum as it is just arithmetic (and eventually algebra) but it is great combined with Fred (which frankly skims over a lot of the basic arithmetic in favor of mathematic thinking and the wide variety of math concepts such as geometry, time telling, sets, etc).
My son has no interest in doing practice problems but at the same time can't just memorize flat out the way I could. Professor B takes a really unique approach. For instance, to memorize the lower addition facts, we started with a game that cemented which pairs of numbers go together (so for adding to ten that would be nine-one, eight-two, seven-three, etc). The chart with the numbers on it is gradually erased until the student is working entirely from memory. Once that is solid, you start moving on to all the associated addition and subtraction facts. It kind of reminds me of All About Spelling for math in that it groups like concepts together, teaches explicitly, avoids all the annoying worksheets I hated as a kid, and allows you to move as quickly or slowly as is comfortable for your student.
We really love Fred and if we had to pick just one math curriculum, it would be Fred, but the combination of Fred and Professor B is amazing!