What about maths?


When I tell people we’re homeschooling, one of the first things they say is “What about maths?” At first, I muttered about calculators and how I’ve never needed to use algebra or long division or that thing we did with the little pamphlet full of charts, but as I’ve done more reading (honestly, I can’t read enough about unschooling – I find it completely fascinating), I have a better answer.

Because surely the point of everyone having to learn maths – at least basic maths – at school is so that we can use it in “real life”. But if that’s the case, then why can’t we also learn it in real life?

Like this, from From How Children Learn at Home by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison:

Far from being a subject detached from everyday life as it is often treated, maths, like the written word, is all around us, and numeracy skills are in daily use. Moreover, most of the primary curriculum if not more, can be covered in this way: telling the time, counting money, making a paper house, colouring patterns, sharing food, weighing cooking ingredients, working out how many days to a birthday, estimating how long a car journey will take, laying the table, playing board games. Many mathematical concepts arise spontaneously and attract child interes; the list above contains just a selection of the myriad possibilities.

My mum was great at mental arithmetic, but she learned it when she worked in a shop (before electric tills), not at school. I was in the top stream for maths at school, but I don’t know my times tables (I know some and can work the others out from the ones I know, but ask me, say, 7 x 8 and…*), and I sometimes refer to subtraction as “backwards adding” and I’m only half joking.

So, no, I’m not worried about maths. My only slight concern is that maybe if Harry was exposed to advanced maths – the stuff I never understood, didn’t know why we were learning and forgot instantly once the exams were over – he would love it and go on to do something with it (I don’t know what… Countdown?) and that by not being forced to do it we’ll never know, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. And, of course, if he ever shows any interest in or aptitude for maths in the future, we can always take it further under our own steam.

I keep thinking about a guy I worked with years ago, who was always quite quiet and dull, but then one night had a few drinks and started telling me how much he loved maths. He was completely passionate about it, much more passionate than I’d ever known him to be about his job. And this was when I worked in the music industry, not accountancy. I also heard Simon Mayo on the radio the other night saying something about how he was never interested in maths until someone pointed out how beautiful it is. But I’m almost certain that was pointed out to him after he left school so it’s not like the ‘advanced maths’ door is permanently closed. (For Harry, I mean. It is for me, happily.) (Although I did enjoy Pythag…)

But also, the above doesn’t just apply to maths, it could apply to anything, and not just things that are on school curricula (we do still say ‘curricula’, right? It hasn’t gone the way of ‘stadia’ and ‘fora’?). With unschooling we have to trust that Harry will find – and follow up – the thing(s) he feels passionate about. In fact, I think that’s what I like about unschooling the most. (That and not having to do the school run, obv.)

* If you did ask me 7 x 8, I would think “7 x 8 is the same as 8 x 7. 7 x 7 is 49. Add 7. Um. Add 1 is 50. Add 6 is 56!” I would hope by then you’d have wandered off and got me a glass of wine or something.

Updated: Yes, 8 x 7 is 56. I really was in the top stream, honest. (Thank you to Siobhan and Hannah for pointing it out. And not laughing at me. Or at least not telling me they were laughing at me.)

Penelope Trunk has a great blog post about learning maths.


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