Unschooling: Is Teaching Higher Mathematics Important?
Should my child learn algebra & other forms of higher math?
I’ve been on the receiving end of several judgments and criticisms because I am not insisting my son learns algebra and other forms of higher math. They range from:
“Ok, so you are going to be a ‘hippy’ about your son’s education that’s fine. But you should at least insist he learns math.”
“Aren’t you actually hurting your child’s future by not insisting he learns algebra?”
“At least teach your child higher math! He needs to learn logical thinking!”
But I ask really, beyond the basics is it important for all kids to learn higher math?
I agree the concept of basic math skills are important, as they apply to everyday life, and as an unschooled teen, my son is efficient in addition, subtraction, multiplication and fractions. But is really teaching and learning higher math (algebra, calculus , trigonometry and above) IMPORTANT? And more to the point, what is the reason for learning specifically algebra and other forms of higher mathematics? I could always ask and reach out to algebra teachers, but I decided to tackle this on my own.
There are two main arguments I’ve heard in favor for insisting my son learns algebra:
1. He will need to know algebra to get into college.
2. Higher math teaches abstract thinking, thus causing the brain to create new connections & function better. (Therefore, algebra builds a better brain.)
First of all, I’ve asked Miro if he’s interested in studying algebra and he’s said NO.
That’s the most important factor.
But, the college argument takes care of itself. If my son wishes to go to college at any point in his life, he and he alone is empowered to make that decision, not anyone else. And if he, and he alone, decides college is right thing for him, then he will have to take the steps to play the rules of ‘testing’ in, including becoming fluent in algebra. It’s Miro’s empowered decisions that will determine if he wants to pursue this option.
As for the second argument, “algebra teaches abstract thinking”, I have several responses to this.
The greatest love of my life was a neuroscientist. We spent a good part of our years together sitting for hours upon end talking about the complexities of the brain, discussing neural patterns, which neurons fire as a result of different stimulus and how new pathways are created. I have a good understanding of the basic biology of the brain, and equally understand that creating better health to any part of the body is in the best interest of any person. But is higher math the only answer?
I believe a biologically healthy brain can be stimulated through life, abstract thinking can be learned through life situations and being empowered to explore the options and discipline is something unschooled kids regulate over themselves. And logical thinking, which is the basis for most arguments of learning algebra, well life provides challenges that need to be solved (logical thinking), my son engages in many forms of games (strategy, experimentation, problem-solving), and exploration in the ‘real world’.
Algebra and other forms of higher math, in my mind are simply tools which enables a child to get what they want. I would never argue that higher math is senseless, rather it may not be necessary based on the objective of the learner.
The real question any unschooling parent must ask is, “what does my child want?”
The answer provided by any unschooler will be based in their individual interests and passions. And yes, using tools available are one of the keys, however the focus must not be lost within the tool itself. In other words, there’s no reason to vilify the tool, rather focus on the passion itself.
But is learning higher forms of mathematics really important to my unschooled son? Yes, I realize that forms of algebra are used in everyday instances like figuring a budget, or cooking, or even throwing a ball. Algebra has a way of sneaking itself into our lives without a grand proclamation or formal learning. Am I performing some kind of child abuse by not insisting he learns it out of a mathematics workbook designed specifically for his age?
As an unschooling parent, I am concerned with my son’s interests ‘now‘. If my son becomes interested in something that requires specific knowledge as a foundation, then I will get him that support to learn what he needs, NOW. I can’t worry about what he may or may not be interested in the future, nor frankly is that my responsibility as an unschooling parent. I can only provide for his needs now, based on his interests. This empowers my son and puts the accountability on him, with the responsibility to communicate his needs.
And through natural learning, I whole-heartily believe my son’s brain is making new patterns and connections and finding different unique ways of solving problems. And I am certain he is doing this without the formal instruction of algebra and other forms of higher math. These skills are obtained is solely though a natural learning process acquired through life and applied creativity.
And the natural learning experiences are indeed creating new neural pathways in the brain, without stress and the association of negative emotions. We’ve opted for natural and joyful experiences learning from games, travel, exploration, languages, play and life experiences.
The truth is it is not necessary to teach higher math, and since my son does not have an interest in studying it now, we will not be pursuing it.
More on math and the unschooler here, by Sandra Dodd.
“We didn’t teach him responsibility or confidence any more than we taught reading or math.
Like all children, he was born with the intelligence and the drive to grow into an adult and take his place in the world. What would have happened to the human race thousands of years ago if this were not true? It’s a natural process, but parents and teachers thwart human nature by trying to force(or motivate, bribe, trick, persuade, cajole or coerce) children into ways of learning and being that go against their own innate, powerful, brilliant and unique intelligence.”
Trust your children.”
Here are some thoughts from other unschooling parents surrounding teaching their children math:
Mary, unschooling mother of 3 boys from the blog BohemianTravelers.com writes:
“When it comes to Math we typically take the same approach we do with any other subject. We do not put any specific focus on it, rather we realize that Math skills are improving everyday because it is all around us. We use math in games, on the street, in stores exchanging money, in the kitchen while cooking and so much more. You basically cannot stop learning math even if you tried.”
“I know that they are learning all the time because I invest my time in taking part in what they are doing. If they need to learn a specific type of math, a higher level lets say, then we will figure it out together. Most people though do not have any need for school work type higher level math! When was the last time you used anything that came out of your college calculus course??”
Mary King, mom to four awesome unschoolers, Victoria, 18; Kalel, 14; Kyle, 9; and Claire, 6. who blogs her experiences at: UnschoolingSuperMom writes:
Math is everywhere. It is something we do everyday in our lives without needing to sit down and learn it from a book. It is in our everyday living experiences of what we do with our lives. It dosen’t need to be forced learning. It is natural to need math to get by and they learn what they need as they need it.
Pam Laricchia, unschooling mom to three kids ages 15, 18, and 20 who writes for the blog LivingJoyfully.ca
“As an unschooling parent for over ten years I’ve seen how resolutely my kids pursue their interests and goals. Their persistence when they are curious and motivated seems inexhaustible, even through frustration and disappointment. But, as unschooling parents realize, real learning is minimal when a person is disinterested. When they need math is when they learn math. My kids encountered everyday arithmetic living and learning in the world around them: counting toys; playing board games; calculating hit points baking delicious food; making store purchases; measuring distance; balancing their bank account. The reasons for performing these tasks are clear, and the computational skills are picked up unobtrusively along the way—without developing the usual curriculum-induced aversion to math. And many adults living active and joyful lives have no need for more advanced skills.
Yet in the real world mathematics is so much bigger than arithmetic and through years of exploring the world, analyzing situations, and making choices, my kids have developed solid critical thinking, reasoning, and logic skills. It’s that strong foundation of mathematical thinking, along with their everyday computational skills, that I’m comfortable will continue to support them in whatever direction they choose to pursue. If at any point the interest or need to learn more advanced mathematical skills presents itself, that’s when they can be picked up. The time conventional students have spent learning what they know, (say, a high school math curriculum) my kids have spent learning other things that make up their knowledge base. With a lifelong view of learning there is no value in comparing the particular ages at which people learn things. It’s not a competition; there’s no behind or ahead. Time is not lost, just used at their preference.”
*Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross based on a CC license.