Is School Math a Waste of Time?

Here is a picture of E prepping for grade six next fall:

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When considering unschooling, the thing that most people seem to get hung up on is MATH. They think, okay, I see that my child is learning to read and write, and I can get on board with everything else being interest based trivia anyway, but what about math??

I know this, because I’ve been one of those people. Math is my unschooling vice. It’s the thing I panic about. I’ve read many convincing things about how we learn what we need to know when we need to know it, and I believe those things. I have lots of crazy opinions anyway on the [dubious] usefulness of things like high school mathematics (and I am a total math geek), but still…it’s always made me nervous to just…let the kids have free reign on that one.

But I’m learning. Experience is a great teacher, and I’ve gained it as my kids grow. I got to a point of being comfortable without any math curriculum after E started reacting badly and I came to my senses. I periodically noted math comprehension that came about organically for the kids from living life and increasing intellectual maturity. And I lately had another moment of epiphany, from an unlikely source: a forced math curriculum.

Do I sound like a hypocrite yet?

Here’s the thing you have to remember: E has chosen to try out school next year. And regardless of my opinions of their value, the fact of the matter is that they expect you to have working knowledge of certain things when you’re in grade six. Sure, not all kids are at grade level. But the deal was that E was going to set herself up as much as possible to be successful, and that pretty much entirely meant updating herself on the grade five public school math curriculum. So yes, she’s doing workbook pages against her stronger inclinations.

But it unexpectedly has shed light on something I’ve heard about before: the absolutely unnecessary amount of time spent getting kids to trudge through basic concepts they would either pick up eventually on their own or will literally never use; and the unschooler’s promise that even if they ever have need for a bunch of deeper subject knowledge, they can learn it then, and quickly too.

Here now I lay before you The Evidence. 

This is a picture of the math workbooks I chose to use. They promise to cover everything in the Alberta curriculum for any given year. They are well known and well liked by many.

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Now keep in mind that E is not some kind of math genius. She is probably the opposite. She has a very usual brain when it comes to working out numbers, and to learn a new concept non-organically she concentrates hard, becomes frustrated, panics sometimes, gets herself confused, requires visuals, feels like it’s a lot of work, and generally struggles to recall basic arithmetic facts simply out of boredom and anxiety. So you know, your average kid.

The other thing you need to keep in mind is that, aside from a few desperate attempts by me here and there over the years, E has had almost no math instruction till now.

With that in mind, it is now time to blow your mind. Here’s why:

#1. I went through both books page by page and circled every one that dealt with a concept or method I thought she didn’t/might not know. So the only things I left out were things she already knew from her mostly osmosis-based learning, or that were just straight up common sense. And I am here to tell you that I circled less than half the pages. That’s right folks, at least one half of the things they are supposed to work on in grade five are just straight up a waste of time.

#2. I counted all the circled pages up and divided them by the number of weeks left before next September. Here’s the result:

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That’s 24 weeks of less than one workbook page per day for E to be fully up to date (starting in January, which is actually halfway through the school year). And that gives her a ten week buffer because there were 34 weeks till September. Let that just sink in for a moment. She will spend half the weeks and a fraction of the time of her schooled peers to complete the same curriculum.

#3. Here’s what I really want to sink in: She’s not just spending half the time of her schooled peers. She’s actually spending much less than that. Because in order to be on par for grade six, she did not have to do grade one, two, three, or four curriculum. And if she wasn’t planning to go to grade six, she wouldn’t have to do this curriculum either.

I’m a believer now, folks. I may have been a skeptical believer before, but I am now fully converted! The concept transfers to anything else, at any other level. If E waited until grade ten to try school, the prep time would have been similar or perhaps even shorter. If she decided to get into a degree that required higher level math prerequisites and she’d never taken a class in her life, I am fully convinced that she could spend a couple months at that point and catch herself right on up.

You know, my husband actually did that, to get into the college science program that he chose. Does anyone else have experience with that–needing to spend a summer doing some adult ed courses to qualify for a post secondary program? Maybe you never did chemistry, and now you need to know chemistry. Is your life over because you don’t have twelve years of chemistry curriculum under your belt? No…you just spend a month learning it all then. And hey, if that chemistry is actually useful for the thing you’re interested in, you may even retain it. Novel!

This has been a real eye opener for me. Paradoxically I am finding this foray into public school to be a real faith-builder in my unschooling philosophies. And she hasn’t even been to school yet.

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