Thursday, 18 August 2011

Let's Talk Maths

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.


  1. This post has me itching to join the discussion!

    We had the same experience with online maths - the novelty wore off and they began to dislike maths. I decided to cut our ties because I'd become convinced that unschooling is a better way and I couldn't see the point in learning a subject just for the sake of some sort of credit.

    I'm hoping that my blog, with its subject tabs, will prove to the Board of Studies that we are satisfying their requirements, despite the fact that we're not doing any formal work.

    I'm looking forward to seeing whether other people are totally unschooling without being Radical Unschoolers.

  2. Oh I'm thinking furiously, and probably have lots to say;) the first thought that comes to mind is maths in itself is a discipline, I believe there is a very definite place for both styles of learning, the question is the ratio of formal:informal. However I'll have to come back to this discussion:) off on a road trip to the Outback for a fortnight.

  3. Hi Sue :)
    We are definitely not radical unschoolers, but we don't do any formal maths here. This is our fourth year of homeschooling, and I have tried various maths books, always with the same result - Rose hated it and Bradman loved it for a while and then tired of it. I am now comfortable with no maths requirements from them both. Rose thinks she does none (although she cooks a lot and does a lot of craft which needs measuring) and Bradman has been asking for worksheets etc. He plays maths games (board and computer), does worksheets, stiles, codes, reads maths living books (eg What's your angle Pythagorus?). For a while they also worked at a Farmers Market selling milk, and they were adding up bottles of milk and giving change from $50 without using a calculator. I have gone through stages of worry that they weren't doing enough (especially Rose) and have considered the online maths, but something has always held me back (not sure what, just a feeling). So it was really good to get your perspective and set my mind at rest about my decision. There is so much useful maths to be learned from every day life, like all other 'subjects'. I was very good at maths at school and did a lot of it in high school, but because I don't use it, I can't remember any of it, so what was the point? If my children ever need more (eg to get into uni), they can always catch up later.
    Sorry for the long comment - I hope it helps a bit :)

  4. Vicky,

    I think the biggest problem is having some sort of record for the BoS. Do we watch out for every use of maths in our children's day and record it? Do we strew real life maths around for them? Do we just relax and know they'll pick up what they need to know when they need to?

    What are you doing?

  5. Erin,
    yes, maths could be viewed as a discipline. I think there is great value just from working through a structured maths course. It requires persistance and thinking skills and each level is built on the one before... it can also result in great satisfaction. This is my own experience.

    However, these skills can be learnt in other ways. Learning a language involves great discipline too especially a language like Latin which is so structured. My girls have actually chosen to do a formal course of Latin.

    So is the formal maths really necessary...?

    The ratio of informal to informal? Yes, both are good. I think that formal learning is not unknown in unschooling circles. Children can choose to do a formal course in order to learn a subject they feel they need to know about. But should we force them?

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your family, Erin! Thank you for your comment!

  6. Natalie,
    I agree that children pick up so much maths just from everyday life. It sounds like you are good at strewing maths experiences for your children.

    When something is not right, our children lose interest and motivation. Something isn't working and it's good to stop and reassess and to listen. I think this is what I'm doing!

    Do you think you will be so relaxed when it comes to high school, Natalie?

    Yes! If children need to know more maths for uni, they can catch up later. The motivation to learn is need. I'd like to write more about our experiences here in another post.

    I love long comments, Natalie. I'm so glad you stopped and shared. Thank you!

  7. Sue, I'm doing a bit of thinking about this, right now, and I think that informal Maths is more appropriate for primary school. Arithmetic is useful but I wonder if things like long division and interest may be better left until high school. At the moment, I am going through the high school texts, choosing the topics that I think will actually be useful to learn and, then, I'll teach them as we do reading - together, in a way that's relevant. I'll probably do some Maths journaling and record what we learn on the blog. But, if one of them wants to learn Maths in the traditional sense, then they can go down the textbook route of their own choice - just as long as they don't expect me to want to do it, too!

  8. Hi Sue,
    This is rather an interesting and topical post. We had been using Saxon maths for some years but just changed over to Maths Online. I can see the online course is quite good, but Brid is methodical, and likes to understand a topic well. I am keeping my Saxon books on the shelf.. because although its a good Australian program, it doesn't have the explanations to teach the concepts in depth.
    I would like her to have a grounding in Maths as we all want for our children.
    I just wouldn't feel comfortable myself unschooling Maths- Its the traditional approach for us in this area. Hugs Leanne

  9. Hi Vicky, I agree that a lot of maths can be left until a child reaches high school age.

    You said: "...if one of them wants to learn Maths in the traditional sense, then they can go down the textbook route of their own choice - just as long as they don't expect me to want to do it, too!"

    What would you do if they wanted to do the course but couldn't manage on their own? Would you sit side by side and try and help them? Or would you find a tutor to help? Or would you expect them to sort it out for themselves?

    Thank you for adding to the discussion!

  10. Hi Leanne, I have just published a post on high school maths: "When Will We Need All This Maths, Mum?" You will see by reading it that we are also doing traditional maths with our teenagers. Perhaps you could share the post. I'd be interested in your opinion!

    Also, I think it is quite possible to unschool but also require some traditional maths. God bless!

  11. I was joking about not helping them! But, seriously though, I honestly don't know what we'd do until the situation happens. In every other situation, God has provided what we need, at the right time, and that really encourages me to expect that we'll be able to follow His lead, again, next time.

  12. I know what you mean, Vicky about God providing the right help at the right time. I wrote about this in my next maths post. I got to a stage where Imogen needed help and I wasn't helping her very effectively. But God provided the solution!


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