Why we love Edward Zaccaro more than Khan Academy


Favourite maths books jpg

If your kids want to use the same maths book every day for months, is it their curriculum? If so, I might have to stop writing about how we don’t use one. Because lately, both C(10) and J(9) have been reaching for Becoming a Problem Solving Genius every time I suggest maths.

Why my kids weren’t ready for these books 2 years ago

We used another of Ed Zaccaro’s books for a short while when C and J were 7 and 8. Why did we stop? I think it was a problem of timing, and attitude – my own and theirs. We’d spent two years lurching from one maths curriculum to another in search of something that could sustain their interest. We probably approached Primary Grade Challenge Math with a weary ennui not very conducive to success.

What’s changed

So what’s different now? Partly my kids are older, which means they can focus on trickier (more interesting) problems for longer. But I think it also has something to do with the maths playtime we’ve been enjoying for the last 14 months.

During that time we’ve approached maths from many different directions. We’ve used stories, videos, number talks, games, puzzles, and many, many hands-on activities. (Sue Elvis wrote a great post about approaching maths “backwards” in this way.) As a result, my kids no longer think maths is about procedures and drills. For them, it’s about solving puzzles. And they know that maths is everywhere, not just on the pages of an arithmetic workbook.

Problem Solving Genius

Why we love Becoming a Problem Solving Genius

The main reason Becoming a Problem Solving Genius is such a hit with my kids is simply that the problems are so interesting and varied.  On any single page there’s a delightfully wide range of different maths topics.

Yesterday, for example, J(9) worked through level 3 of the chapter on Venn Diagrams. The first three questions alone relate to (1) quadrilaterals, (2) triangles, and (3) prime numbers, none of which we’ve worked on recently.

Knowing how J(9) likes to find things out for himself, I showed him our Maths Dictionary, where he looked up rectangles, squares and rhombuses. He then grabbed the Geomag and created quadrilaterals according to the definitions he’d read.

For the triangles question, he decided to draw as many different types of triangles as he could think of and then try to categorise them, before he looked up the definitions of scalene, isosceles and equilateral.

When we got to the question on prime numbers, I showed J(9) the Sieve of Eratosthenes, after which he easily allocated the primes to their appropriate sets in the Venn Diagram.

Venn diagrams in Becoming a Problem solving genius

Most of the problems in Ed Zaccaro’s books involve arithmetic calculations, so I don’t worry about my children not practising the basic mathematical operations. Rather, they’re being used in a meaningful context. (C(10) uses Math Mammoth now and again to practise her long division, and when J(9) feels the need to practise specific skills I’ll offer him appropriate materials, too.)

C(10) loved the chapter in Becoming a Problem Solving Genius on logic. (So did J(9), but after enjoying his delightfully “creative” answers I made a mental note to return to the chapter in a year or so!) And they both loved “Don’t be fooled (Counterintuitive thinking)”.

Challenge Math

Our success with Becoming a Problem Solving Genius inspired me to pull our other Ed Zaccaro books off the shelf. J(9) was beginning to struggle with the higher levels of some topics, so we switched to Primary Grade Challenge Math to consolidate and fill gaps in topics like decimals, square roots and percentages.

Primary Grade Challenge Math

Then there is Challenge Math for the Elementary and Middle School Student, which is aimed at slightly older children. It, too, covers a huge variety of maths topics. I haven’t used Challenge Math with either of my kids yet, but I’m going to show it to C(10) soon. I think she’ll like it. The contents range from decimals, fractions, percents and area to acceleration, simultaneous equations and astronomy!

Challenge Math

From the back of the book:

“Difficult concepts in areas such as statistics, probability, trigonometry and calculus are explained in an easy to understand format using cartoons and drawings. This makes self-learning easy for both the child and any teacher whose math skills are a little rusty.”

Challenge Math for the Elementary and Middle School Student

(That’ll be me with the rusty maths skills and – despite A grades – total ignorance of what calculus, for example, is actually for. At school I learned to follow the procedure and move on. Understanding was, as far as I could tell, irrelevant.)

Khan Academy

In my last post I also promised to share our thoughts on Khan Academy maths.

What I like about Khan Academy

Khan Academy represents a massive step forward in open source learning. It makes maths education available to a many, many people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. And I’m sure it compares favourably to curricula people pay hundreds of pounds for.

It’s is a very flexible resource. You can choose to learn recreational math, or math by grade level, or a variety of skills at once, in World of Math. Or you can focus on higher level skills like trigonometry or geometry. It’s possible to switch between options at any time.

I like that you can level up multiple skills with Mastery Challenges. And the coach dashboard, which allows you to see what your students have been doing, is very sophisticated. You can see what lessons your student has completed, how long they took, what clues they had, whether they watched any videos, and how many attempts it took to get the right answer. (Although personally I feel a bit Big Brotherish when I do that. I prefer to just ask my kids what they’ve been doing. We can look at the “dashboard” together if it helps.)

Earlier this year I wondered if Khan Academy might be the ideal way for my autodidactic 9-year-old to learn maths. He agreed to give it a go, and at the same time I decided to use Khan myself to review what he’d be covering. I also thought it would be useful to look at what C(10) “ought” to be able to do (since we weren’t using a curriculum) and to brush up on my own maths skills.

Why Khan Academy didn’t work for my 9 year old

I used Khan Academy every evening for several weeks, and by the end I was in complete sympathy with J(9), who was grumbling about how boring it was. The material is dry, lacks context, and the problems involve the same sort of abstract, unlikely scenarios that have blighted maths textbooks for decades. This is not a living maths curriculum!

How I use Khan Academy

Having said that, I’m not completely discounting Khan Academy as a resource.

Firstly, I’m using it to review topics my children are learning. By working through their respective grade levels I can remind myself of what they “should” know and make a note to fill any gaps (including in my own skills!).

Secondly, the videos are useful when you want to quickly learn or review a specific concept.  For example, when C(10) was working out the area of rectangle recently, she wondered, “So how do we calculate the area of a triangle?” I remembered the formula half × base × height, but C(10) always wants to know “why?” and I wasn’t sure I could answer her. A short Khan Academy video gave me of the mathematical proof I was looking for and I was able to explain it to C(10).

C(10), by the way, didn’t try Khan Academy. She was enjoying our buddy maths too much to contemplate giving it up.

Perhaps we’ll come back to Khan Academy when the children are older, but for now it’s not for us.

How about you? Have you tried Khan Academy or Mr Zaccaro’s books? What works best for your family? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Read more about how we do living maths here.

This post contains affiliate links. I purchased my own copies of all the books.


I’m appreciatively linking up here:

Weekly Wrap-Up at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers

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14 thoughts on “Why we love Edward Zaccaro more than Khan Academy

  1. A very comprehensive review of both the Zaccaro books and Khan Academy! Thank you for taking the time to explain how each has worked (or not) for you. There are so many creative ways to learn maths, and I’m so glad for you that you’ve found a way that works for both your children. I agree with you that Khan Academy is a disguised form of drill that is a step up from doing workbook pages, but doesn’t quite cut it as living maths.

    1. Thanks Hwee. So many people seem to be raving about Khan Academy that I was a bit unsure about sharing our opinion. But I wonder how many mums have tried it for themselves? And the Zaccaro books are so fab I want everyone to know about them! 🙂

  2. We had the same reactions as you to both Zaccaro and Khan. We loved Ed’s books and wished there were many more of them. But my daughter found Khan Academy fun the first two or three days, and then very tedious thereafter.

    And because the Khan problems are randomly generated, they are actually *worse* than worksheets. You don’t get the progression to deeper understanding that you find in a set of well-planned textbook problems.

    1. I’m glad to hear your daughter enjoyed the Zaccaro books, Denise. It makes me happy to know we have so many unread chapters ahead of us!

      I hadn’t thought about that with Khan and the random element – I see what you mean.

  3. We use the Khan videos in a similar way, for when they need a reminder of how a formula works, or a little better explanation than what I’m giving for a problem. My oldest also starting working through Khan’s SAT prep section – it is boring, but feels comprehensive.

  4. Lucinda,

    My girls all have Kahn Academy accounts but it’s been a long time since they signed in and used the website. The award system is very attractive but it didn’t take me long to realise I want my children to enjoy maths for its own sake and not because they are earning points and badges. Ticking off boxes has nothing to do with real knowledge.

    We haven’t seen any of the Zaccaro books but I’d like to! They look very interesting. I might order one.

    Thank you so much for mentioning my backwards maths post. I appreciate the link! Another very interesting post!

    1. Sue,

      “Ticking off boxes has nothing to do with real knowledge.” Absolutely! Our children must know that too, which is why they have so little tolerance for such things.

      I think your girls (and you) will enjoy the Zaccaro books. Challenge Maths is extremely comprehensive. Become a Problem Solving Genius is less thick but wonderful too. I had to order them from Amazon US because they aren’t easily available here in the UK. Have fun puzzling if you get them!

  5. We use Math U See and it has worked well for us. The kiddos like the short to the point lessons and the hands-on manipulatives.

    I am very interested in the Zaccaro books! Thank you for highlighting. I am definitely going to look them up. They look they would fit right into our problem solving homeschooling atmosphere.

    1. Hi Jeannine, I’ve heard lots of good things about Maths U See. It really seems to work for some families. We like manipulatives too.

      Do look up the Ed Zaccaro books. If your kids like problem solving I’m sure they’ll love them!

  6. I’ve popped a couple of his books in my Amazon trolley! I see he has an algebra one as well. A friend asked me just today if I thought there was any real purpose to learning algebra as she couldn’t think of any real life examples of when you might need it. I drew somewhat of a blank. Y’see, I obviously need his book!
    Great post as always!!

    1. I’ve got that one too. Must take a look at it! Actually I’m rather excited about doing algebra with my kids. I loved it at school – all those little x’s and y’s – but hadn’t a clue what they all meant. It’ll be v cool finding out what it’s all about!. The Jo Boaler course I did last year gave me a taste. Thank you. 🙂

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