Beast Academy: Moving Beyond Doing Math to Thinking Math

In most homeschool families, doing math is pretty high on the priority list. We all want to make sure our kids know basic math facts and can complete math problems accurately. But is that really enough?

Knowledge without Understanding

Imagine that you are learning most any other subject under the sun. Let's say, for example, you are teaching your kids about the life cycle of a frog.

If you get to the end of the lesson and they can accurately name each of the phases in the life cycle of the frog, is this enough? Have you accomplished your goal?

What if you ask them some questions about what you've told them or read to them and they look back with blank stares? They haven't absorbed anything about the concepts. They can't really explain what happens as a tadpole grows.

But hey, they know the words egg, tadpole, and frog. And they can even spell tadpole correctly. Is your job done?

Well, that depends on your actual goal, doesn't it? If your only goal was to prepare them to fill in a form with those three words, or to impress the grandparents with spelling skills, then you're golden.

But if your goal was to help them actually comprehend the information to the point where they could engage with it and converse about it? Not so much.

Math is a Conversation

Galileo said

Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.

Mathematics is simply a language - a way of communicating about ideas. And, just like the primary language we speak, we begin learning it long before any formal instruction starts.

My three year old knows what I mean when I say that he may have "only one jelly bean" (even if he sometimes pretends that he doesn't). The five year old does fractions regularly when she shares half of a sandwich with her sister. The six year old knows he can come downstairs at 7 am.

Math is simply a way of communicating about ideas that are a part of life. My children absorb these concepts because they want to interact with the world around them to accomplish some purpose (jelly beans, sandwiches, and playing downstairs).

Does Math Play Have to Stop?

But I know what you're thinking. That's really sweet and cute when you're talking about toddlers and preschoolers. But at some point we have to stop playing around with math and actually "do" math. You know, we have to be serious about it and all, right?

If by "serious" you mean that you want to be intentional and purposeful in the way you engage your children in math exploration, then go for it. But if by "serious" you mean that you need to remove the fun and make it clear that this is work, well, I've got another suggestion.

What if you kept on approaching math as something kids assimilate on a need-to-know basis? What if they engaged a math concept because it was simply a tool they needed to achieve a desired end? What if math was a language your kids asked to learn so they could interact with something they were enjoying?

Welcome to Beast Academy

I began gearing up for Math Month April way back in January. One of the first things I did was to ask my Facebook Group what they'd most like to learn more about. Was there a product or a resource they'd always wondered about? Or one they would highly recommend? Both questions were answered with a resounding "Beast Academy".

I confess, I almost didn't bite. See, I moved away from grade-level specific material a while ago. We got so bogged down in worksheets and checking math and correcting math and the 20-minute-long-hunt-for-the-tiny-error-in-the-long-division-problem kind of math and we were so over it.

A couple of years ago, we embraced Family Math instead. All the school-aged peeps and I gather around the table and explore math together. Let's all play with geometry. Let's all play with fractions. Let's all play with measurement.

Beast Academy seemed like it would drag us right back into the grade-level cell blocks. And workbooks. Ugh.

Dear, Go Read Your Math

I'm so glad I listened to my readers. Beast Academy, I humbly beg your pardon. I can't even confess to having judged a book by its cover, because once I got a look at the covers, I was even more interested!

The first tasty treat in a Beast Academy experience is call the Guide Book. I think that's just what they call it when the parents are listening. My kids call it "the comic book".

I tried being all organized and starting Beast Academy on a Monday morning. But I couldn't locate the Guide Books. They were all in beds and corners of the family room in piles of pillows and blankets where kids had absconded with them to read and devour.

My kids were asking good questions about the math that was taking place in the story because, well, they wanted to understand the plot! Following the math thread was simply a tool they needed to satisfy their own interest in the story.

Dear, Go Play with Your Math

But the brilliance of the Beast Academy approach extends beyond the story-driven introduction to mathematical concepts. I was shocked when I looked through the Practice Books.

I was shocked at what was missing. Completely missing. There are no "traditional" math pages: three rows of this kind of problem, three rows of review problems, two word problems.

I was even more shocked at what I did find. Brain teasers. Logic problems. Visual-spatial puzzles. Algebraic patterning. Games to cut out and play. Lots of these. In other words, this wasn't just a "quick fun at the end of a chapter before we get back to 'real' math" kind of problem solving. The problem solving is the chapter.

Here are two ways to learn place value. Which would you enjoy more?

Circle the digit that is in the tens place:

  1. 132
  2. 565
  3. 271
  4. 1,207
  5. 2,141

Sure, a compliant child will do the work. And if he gets them wrong, you can point out the mistakes and tell him why they are wrong. Or, he could explore place value like this:

Or this ...

If you'd like to try some of these fun math-challenges, you can find a variety of free printable activities on this page! (On the next tab besides the printables, you can also find assessments for each level, if you'd like to see which one might be a good fit for your student!)

Dear, Go Check Your Math

One of the things my kids dreaded about "workbook math" was the cycle of checking and correcting. But now, the checking and correcting are a part of the learning process. Guess where the answer key is? It's in the back of the Practice Book. Yes, that's right. It's in the student book.

My kids are checking their own math. And they love it!

Because the problems are like puzzles, they don't want to just look up the answers. They want to try and figure them out on their own. But when they are sure they've gotten it, they want to find out of they are right!

The section in the back with the answers is much more than an answer key. It's actually an in-depth description of each answer - what it is and why!

On a number of occasions, one of the kids completed a puzzle, not realizing she didn't understand the rules of the challenge. It was the process of checking her answer (and wanting to know why it was wrong) that enlightened her to what she had overlooked!

More Where That Came From

Beast Academy currently offers Guide Book and Practice Book pairs in Levels 2, 3, 4, and 5. These are roughly equivalent to second, third, fourth, and fifth grades. However, the Practice Books pack plenty of challenge. All four of my oldest children wanted to try Beast Academy, so they're using the books as follows:

  • Second Grader - Level 2
  • Fourth Grader - Level 3
  • Sixth Grader - Level 4
  • Seventh Grader - Level 5

Each of them is enjoying the challenge and stretched to try new things. Since the lessons aren't simply about "doing" a math concept, but applying those concepts to solve problems and puzzles, there is no such thing as "I've already done this".

The Beast Academy series was actually developed by The Art of Problem Solving as a ramp-up to their signature series, designed for upper-grade learners. This curriculum is available in book form, taught via online classes, and even at a number of learning centers popping up around the country!

AoPS is also working on a brand new Beast Academy online option that should launch this summer! You can get on their mailing list here to be notified when it's available.

You can learn more about these two awesome programs by following ...


Lynna Sutherland is a homeschool mother of eight always-homeschooled kiddos ranging in age from high school to kindergarten. She loves to encourage parents in the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling and offer creative ways to manage a large family and a multi-age homeschool!

  • I can’t even enter because we have all of the books already and have been using them for more than a year. My son calls the guide books “my treasures,” and reads them over and over after we have completed them. I am blown away by the depth of mathematical understanding required to progress. After completing all of Life of Fred elementary and khan academy through 4th grade, my son began with 3A and has found plenty of challenge and learning. I plan to continue with Art of Problem Solving after we finish the series (we are in 4B now). We love beast academy!

  • I have a 7th grader using Beast Academy level 5 this year. What do you suggest for next year? I want to step away from AoPS. We are in this because the comic style is such a hit. Should I skip pre-algebra and just get him an easy algebra?

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