Homeschooling Harry: 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 8. Um. Add 10 is 59. Take away 2… 57!” 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.)

Updated again! Meant to add a link to this great Penelope Trunk blog post about learning maths.


18 thoughts on “Homeschooling Harry: What about maths?

  1. Um. 7 x 8 is 8 x 7. But if you want to go from 7 x 7 to get to 8 x 7, you’d need to add on another 7 (so you’ve got 8 lots of 7) not another 8 (which would give you 7 lots of 7 plus an 8). Sorry. Would you like that wine now?

    If it’s any consolation I get to 8 x 7 by going ‘8 x 8 is 64, take away 8’. I think that’s how most non-mathsy people remember tables – you hang onto a few memorable ones and work from there.

    1. Thanks! I tend not to remember 8×8 (I think it’s the only square I don’t know) and then, of course, there’d be the ‘backwards adding’ issue…

      Is that really how most people do it? But didn’t we all learn by rote, so we should know them?

      1. Obviously when I say ‘most people’, I mean ‘I do it and you do too, so that’s probably other people as well.’ (Science!)

        We did all learn by rote, but a long time ago. My tables are rusty. They’re there, and when I did teacher training I needed to have them at the tip of my tongue, so I unrustified them – but I think most knowledge you don’t use regularly goes into a sort of brain pocket for later. (Brain pocket = not science. I just made that up.)

  2. Ha! I read recently that if you don’t practically apply any theory that you learn within three weeks of learning it, s’gone.

  3. H *loves* maths, has a 1st Class maths degree, won’t read a novel but will devour books about prime numbers and watch Horizon type shows about maths theories etc. Me? I don’t get it (maths or his love for it).

    Ps – Do you plan to continue homeschooling through high school? If so what will happen when it comes to exams because virtually every employer wants to know your GCSE results and other qualifications? Finally, and I might’ve already asked you this, how is your homeschooling regulated, if at all? This is something that particulary interests me especially as we’ve just been through an Ofsted inspection which drills right down into the core of learning and teaching and how it impacts of the achievements of the individual child and their expectations of what school should be doing are so high. Yet, from what I’ve read which I’ll admit is very little, homeschooling doesn’t seem to fall into their remit. Also, child minders also have to go through Ofsted inspections too and it’s worrying that they can be so demanding on schools/nurseries/playgroups/childminders but are happy to let a whole category of children go “unchecked”.

    1. Ha! Maths does sound fascinating, but it’s one of those things that I just glaze over about.

      Yes, definitely plan to continue (although who really knows – anything could change at any time). You can take exams as an individual, so if that’s what he wants to do it’s not a problem. (And I read the other day that 60% of children in school today will end up doing jobs that don’t exist yet, which is a bit barmy.)

      Regulation varies between LEAs. We haven’t heard a peep from ours yet – not a sausage, which is mad, I agree (it’s possible school hasn’t even told them – they didn’t reply to my letter). But you do know what the difference between me and schools/nurseries/playgroups/childminders is, right? 🙂

      1. I know you’re his mum but as parents you can get fined for not sending your to school but then you can take your child out of school to homeschool and everyone (obviously not the parents) ceases to care as much about the child’s education. I find this bizarre and troubling in some ways.

    2. This is a reply to your comment below – won’t let me reply directly:

      Because school isn’t a legal requirement – education is. So as long as the LEA is confident that children are being educated, why should they have a problem with it? I actually find it more bizarre and troubling that schools can dictate to parents in so many ways. However, I do think it’s odd that neither the school nor the LEA has even contacted me, but since I can’t find any mention of home education on the local council’s revamped website, I can’t say I’m exactly surprised.

      1. That’s what I’m asking, how on earth do they determine that you’re educating your child? (I’m not talking about you personally btw)
        In what way do you feel school dictates to parents? At our school we don’t dictate anything to parents, we have an open dialogue with them making suggestions on how they can best help support with their childs education.

        I hope you don’t think I’m being confrontational with all these questions/opinions but working in a school it intrigues me how the LAs/Ofsted/government can be so stringent checking a child is being well educated in school but not be that bothered about how children are being educated at home!

      2. No, I don’t think you’re being confrontational at all! It’s all v interesting. The difference between how LAs/Ofsted/government treat children in school and at home is, I think, because they’re interested in the education *system* not in individual children. Once children are out of the system (no longer contributing to targets, league tables, etc.) it’s less of a concern.

        As to how they determine education, that seems to be a very sticky subject because it’s not defined in the legislation. (I found this for Lancashire last night when I was trying to find our local one – it’s quite interesting, I think But, to be honest, I think it’s none of their business and they have to trust parents to know how to educate their children in the way the majority of parents have to trust schools (and the government) to educate their children.

        As for dictating, well, lots of ways – I wrote about it here – but really, dictating to parents is the only way that school can *work*, I understand that. But I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to opt out of it.

    1. Exactly, Lainie – thank you. Will have a read of your blog post tomorrow (have to write another one of my own right now). 🙂

  4. I hated maths at school and (much) later realised that it was because of the teachers I had. There was only one good teacher of maths and, under his tutelage, I became quite proficient. By that time though, I was ready to leave school – and there was so much about maths that I didn’t know. As to the subject of schooling and the law – I always thought it really weird that parents can actually be fined for not sending their children to ‘proper’ school. In time to come maybe people will all be homeschooled. And I think that would be fantastic. Keep up the good work, Keris and David! 🙂 xxx

    1. Actually yes, now that you mention it, the fining thing is another example of schools (or the education system) dictating to parents. And thank you! 🙂

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