We are not radical unschoolers: my girls have been learning maths in a formal way rather than as a consequence of life. But I have been thinking…
The girls used to use workbooks, the sort that cover one school year at a time. They filled them in with correct answers and moved from book to book. And they didn’t complain. It was interesting enough. It was just something that was expected and they did it.
Then about 18 months ago, I found an online maths website which looked much more fun and enjoyable than the workbooks. The girls eagerly tossed aside the books, signed in with their user-names and started clicking. It was all very much a novelty for a while. Their mouse skills improved at a dramatic rate as they worked through the interactive activities, gaining credit points for their effort, which could be spent in the virtual rewards room. The girls enjoyed changing their avatars regularly and ‘spending’ their credits as they put together virtual bedrooms, cubbie houses, gardens, zoos…
The girls leapt from activity to activity and finished the year’s work in record time. Then it was onto a new year… genii in the making (or so I thought).
But just recently I have noticed a decrease in interest in maths. Sophie who used to consider herself a math-magician has started to say, “I don’t like maths. I‘m not much good at it.” I have been observing her working and have come to the conclusion that she has lost interest in accumulating points. Avatars and virtual rewards rooms have lost their sparkle. She has forgotten that maths is not a points collecting activity. It does have another function.
Online maths websites are using rewards to motivate children to learn. They might be more sophisticated rewards than the old gold stars and smiley face stamps of workbook days, but they are rewards all the same. And rewards are never a good way to learn. Learning needs to be done out of love. Take the rewards away and a child should still want to learn.
I like maths very much. I really enjoy the satisfaction of working my way through a problem and obtaining the correct answer. To me, maths is an exercise in thinking. So maths can be enjoyable for its own sake.
Or we might want to learn maths because we see a need for it.
I think about how my girls learn English. I’ve never provided them with workbooks, or vocabulary or spelling lists. They don’t have to write book reviews or do comprehension tests, parse sentences or have formal grammar lessons. They have learnt all they know about the English language by actually using it for real work. They write letters, make shopping lists, compose blog posts and stories, read other author’s writings, discuss ideas... They use English in similar ways to me. I haven’t seen the need to set up artificial learning experiences in order for them to learn something which can be absorbed easily by real life activities. Strewing good examples of English in their pathway and exhibiting my own active love of the subject has been enough to encourage my girls to want to learn English skills for themselves. They love working with words and that is enough motivation to learn and to continue learning.
But I have provided artificial learning experiences for my children in the area of maths. Could I toss away the workbooks and cancel the online maths courses, and would my children still learn what might be described as necessary maths skills?
I have to admit that the online courses serve one function: they allow me to prove to the Department of Education I am teaching my children maths. I don’t have to record every example of maths usage in my children’s lives. I don’t have to assess their maths skills. If they have completed the course and achieved the certificates then the Board of Studies is happy. It is easy for me. And I have been happy to compromise in this one area of education because, after doing the required maths exercises of the day, I have felt able to give my children the freedom then to pursue their own interests and to really unschool.
But is this compromise killing my children’s inborn love of learning? Will Sophie’s dislike of maths, and her opinion that she is no good at maths, intensify? Should I throw caution to the wind and cut the last tie that is holding me to a conventional approach to education? Should I allow my children the freedom to learn maths in their own way in their own time?
I’d love to hear your opinons. Do you unschool maths? Or do you think it is important to teach maths in a more structured manner? Or perhaps, you are like me, questioning the effectiveness of traditional methods and yearn to cut the last knot that is keeping our children back from real learning.
Perhaps we can talk high school maths next time.