Being Honest About Unschool Maths

My Unschooling Book Series (27)

Today, I’ve been writing about unschool maths, jotting down notes about how we went from ‘unschooling except for maths’ to unschooling with complete trust.

Unschooling except for maths? Is that really unschooling?

I want to discuss that question, but first: Why is it so hard to let go of maths? (I’ve never heard anyone say, “We unschool except for history or creative arts or…) Why do many of us cling to old and false ideas about learning when it comes to maths? Do we not really believe our kids will pick up all the maths they need by living life?

Or maybe we don’t think that’s enough maths. Although we may never have used it, perhaps we think our kids should learn higher maths just in case. Just in case of what? If our kids ever need more maths than they know, they can always learn it. It’s never too late.

We might tell ourselves that even if our kids never use all this maths, it’s a good mental exercise. They might not retain everything, but it won’t be a waste of time and effort because their brains will have got a workout.

And maybe we think that because we survived higher maths, it won’t hurt our kids to do it too.

I’ve also been pondering another idea: Perhaps some of us don’t want to let go of maths, both primary and high school, because it would make our homeschool record-keeping more difficult.

My daughter Charlotte completed part of a higher maths course. Her story illustrates how we can fool ourselves. I won’t say we are dishonest, but we know that if we look too closely at a situation, we may discover something we don’t want to deal with. So we don’t look.

I told everyone Charlotte loves maths. “I love maths. My kids love it too. We’re a maths family. We like playing around with numbers.” This explained (I hoped) why my kids did structured maths courses even though we called ourselves unschoolers. I told everyone that they enjoyed these courses. But did Charlotte really like working her way through the many levels of higher maths? For a long time, I didn’t know because I didn’t ask her. She never complained about doing maths. Therefore I assumed that she enjoyed this subject because it was convenient for me to believe this.

Yes, sometimes we can look at things with half-closed eyes because it’s convenient. Charlotte’s online maths course records provided an easy way for me to prove she was doing the required maths for homeschool registration purposes. If she gave up her course, what was I going to do? I’d have to find other evidence that she was learning maths. Could I do that? Maybe but it would certainly be much more difficult than running some maths worksheets and progress reports under the homeschool registration visitor’s eyes. So I continued not to examine the situation too closely. We continued ‘unschooling except for maths’. We weren’t ‘unschooling but I require my kids to do maths’. I didn’t require maths. Oh no, my kids wanted to do it. They loved this subject.

Except they didn’t. One day, my daughter Sophie said, “I hate maths.” And eventually, I got brave and asked Charlotte how she felt and she confessed she wasn’t enjoying her course as I had hoped.

I want to write more about what changed my mind about unschool maths. I want to tell you how I was forced to open my eyes and look at the situation in an honest way. How I ended up with no choice but to let go and unschool with complete trust. And I’m going to do that. But for now, I want to go back to that question: Can we call ourselves unschoolers if we require our kids to do maths?

If we think of unschooling as a pathway that we progress along as we learn more about this philosophy, I think it’s quite okay for us to require maths and still call ourselves unschoolers. The particular point where we are standing at the moment is the one just right for our family. And maybe we’ll stay there. Or perhaps we won’t.

But we all have to keep our minds open. Keep thinking. Keep learning. And be honest. Ask the question: Are we really at the correct point for our families? Do we need to be brave and examine what’s really going on rather than what we hope is happening? Perhaps we’re doing something a certain way because it’s convenient and not because it’s right. If we find out that our kids’ learning is being negatively affected, we have to face that. Do something about it. We can’t stand still and say, “This is what suits our family,” when really it might only suit us, the parents, and not our children at all.

I’ve got a lot more I want to say about unschool maths but that’s enough for today! Also, I’m not going to use what I’ve just written as it is. No, it needs lots of work. I’m just sharing my raw thoughts. I invite you to share yours!

Tags: , , ,

Related Posts

Previous Post Next Post


    • Cassie
    • November 29, 2017

    Hi Sue! It’s been a really long time sine I commented. I hope all is well!!

    Re: Unschool maths…I did let go of the “math just in case” crutch and for a couple of years, my girls didn’t do any formats maths. My younger daughter does enjoy it (she thinks it’s like a big puzzle to solve, which it is) so she would do informal maths sometimes for fun. My older daughter absolutely hates it so I just let her shine her light in the math other interests she had. But in the beginning of last year, she decided she wanted to sit for the SAT exams and that was A LOT of maths to cover in the span of just months. She did study very hard and didn’t score very badly but she could have done better had she been doing maths all along “just in case.” And now my younger daughter wants to go to a brick and mortar high school so we find ourselves in the position (again) of playing catch up with math…which makes me wish that we didn’t drop format math study (again).

    The moral of my story is that there is no right or wrong, just what is comfortable. I was willing to let go of all other formal studies but math was the last hold out…I think I should have listened a little longer and delved a little deeper as to why.


      • Dawn
      • November 30, 2017

      This comment helps me a lot! We have just begun to understand unschooling (thanks in large part to Sue’s podcasts and blog posts!!) and I would like to make sure that we have our options open as we move along.

      1. Reply


        I love how we can all share ideas and experiences. Thank you for reading my posts and listening to my podcasts!

        • Cassie
        • December 4, 2017

        Sue’s blog and podcasts are a breath of fresh air and and excellent resource for those of us interested in unschooling. Over the years, I have learned so much from Sue and have benefitted from her experience as I’m sure so many others have as well!

    1. Reply


      Hi! It’s so good to hear from you. I’m really glad you stopped by to share your experiences.

      Your comment does indeed indicate we have to listen carefully to our kids and do what we feel is right for our own family.

      I’m so pleased to hear your daughter did okay in her SAT exam. Yes, she had a lot of catching up to do but she did it! Kids can catch up when they need to. Of course, you are right: They might have a lot of work to do depending on what level they have already achieved. I wonder if the time factor was important to you. Could your daughter have taken more time to learn the maths? Or did she feel she wanted to move onto the SAT exam fairly quickly? Perhaps a family could take the catch up pathway if necessary or do maths just in case to make things easier. An individual decision?

      For us, making my kids do maths just in case would be a disaster. Sophie (16) loves maths but years ago, she was saying, “I hate maths” because she was doing a structured course. When she dropped the course, she still did a lot of maths but in an informal way. “a big puzzle to solve”…That’s just how Sophie thinks about maths! I’m always strewing maths so she knows a lot more than we might think. At this stage, I don’t see Sophie needing a formal maths qualification or result but if she did, I think she’d be prepared to work hard and get the necessary skills.

      Gemma-Rose struggles with maths. It’s taken me a long time to overcome her dread of it, I strew carefully. I have to encourage her without pushing. I know if I push her too hard, she’ll close up completely. But we had a breakthrough this year. She said she’d like to work on some basic skills by doing a few problems each day. Her decision, not mine. So maybe some kids need space and time. For Gemma-Rose, being forced to do maths wouldn’t have worked. I guess I’ve worked my way back to the thought that we have to listen carefully to our kids and do what is right for them!

      Cassie, your comment has given me a lot to think about. I want to address different situations and concerns in my book so I’m grateful you stopped by to share your thoughts. It’s easy to see things from my viewpoint, but as you said, there is no right or wrong, just what’s comfortable. It was good to hear about you and your children. Thank you for stopping by!

      1. Reply


        I’ve been thinking more about my reply to your comment. (I love how we give each other things to think about!) I said that Gemma-Rose struggles with maths but this isn’t really true. She is very competent at using maths in real life including mental calculations. However, she freezes when she sees a page of maths problems. I feel she would struggle if she had to sit a maths test or answer someone who is quizzing her just to see what she knows. It’s a pity that tests are used to determine a child’s mathematical ability.

  1. Reply

    I think the “unschooling except for maths” is because maths just don’t lie around like almost any outer subjegct. Oh yes the day to day math, addition subtraction multiplying and division, but not the highter maths. Unles – like one of my sons – you have a penchant for maths. Then there’s no stopping it.
    Short and unprecise post. I hope you’ll understand.

    1. Reply


      Oh yes, maths beyond the day to day stuff isn’t so easy to see. I find it much harder to strew maths than I do for any other topic. Looking for interesting maths resources that will capture the imagination of my children has been very challenging. I don’t think it’s impossible though. Just hard work!

      LIke you son, I did enjoy higher maths. Even though I knew I’d never use it, I did like working my way through the problems and getting the right answers. I thrive on challenges. It felt like I was solving puzzles. I wonder if your son feels the same way or if there is another reason he enjoys this subject. Is this your musical son? Perhaps that’s the connection?

  2. Reply

    I like the stream of consciousness writing! If I had to give an external influence as a reason we focus on math, it would be the SAT. Our local community college admits students who have taken the SAT regardless of their score, but they have to have a score.

    We’re ‘focusing’ on the basics with all the kids, (who are 6 y.o. No. 1, 5 y.o. NO. 2, and 2 yo.o No. 3), just so they’ll be able to handle money, make recipes, and whatnot. No. 1, and I ‘focus’ on other sorts of math, mostly base 2 math, but that’s because that’s what I use at work, and she was curious about it.

    My definition of focus brings me to my question for you. When I say we focus on things, what I really mean is that on occasion, we ask the kids math questions when we’re sitting around playgrounds, or coffee shops. We’re having a blast with our mixed-up definition of unschooling, but if we participate that kind of focusing, are we not unschooling, technically speaking?

    Other examples of our not focusing include pointing out what sorts of words are nouns, verbs, and pronouns as we walk along and talk about things. Basically, we’re sliding things in as we go. Sometimes it’s just for the fun of it, and sometimes it’s for specific reasons. (For example, No. 1 wants to learn Chinese, and its sometimes easier to learn a language if you have a grasp of grammar.) Sometimes things start out as fun, and later wind up being useful in something else we do.

    So, I guess my question is since we slip topics in here and there, are we still unschooling? If not, what is it called?

    Thanks for all the posts this month! I’m having a great time reading them!

    1. Reply


      We are fortunate because our kids don’t have to do the SAT exam. There are other ways to get into university if that’s what they want to do. Some of my kids dropped out of their maths courses but still got into university. My eldest son even has a Masters of Teaching (primary) despite never having sat an official maths test. My kids didn’t have to do the higher maths (which they didn’t need) just to pass a test. I don’t know anything about your college and university systems. Is there another pathway other than the SAT to get onto a degree course? Of course, some courses need maths. If any of my kids had wanted to get onto one of these courses, they could have done a university preparation maths course.

      Your question about focusing… I see no problem sharing information at appropriate times with our kids as long as they are interested. We learn a lot by just chatting together (like adults do), sharing info and asking questions and generally enjoying the conversation. If I slide in more than my kids are interested in, I can soon tell I’ve overstepped the line. The conversation becomes one-sided and I can see that my kids are (politely) waiting for me to stop talking. I guess we have to be sensitive and know when, what, and how much to share.

      Maybe many people think of maths as a basic subject that needs to be mastered. Useful but not necessarily interesting. But I imagine you see maths as a creative passion or interest. It would be natural for you to share it with your kids. Oh yes, we can be curious about something if we hear about it from someone who has a passion for the subject! Maybe this is why your kids have fun answering maths questions. Other kids might feel threatened by the questions or wonder if they’re being tested. Gemma-Rose would say, “Don’t you believe I can work out the answer, Mum?”! But it sounds like this isn’t the case with your family.

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading my book series posts. Thanks for your kind feedback and all your helpful comments!

    • Venisa
    • November 30, 2017

    I love how unschooling is a journey and that it is all about guiding our children and meeting their needs. I like to talk with my children regularly about their goals and what they want their days to look like. I ask them if they need any materials or help. I have a brother who attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I’d like to think that if my kids had any ambitions toward something like that I’d be clued into it along the way. I imagine that most of these issues could be resolved with a few months or even a year of catch up supplemented by some cool alternative learning experiences(maybe you learned to fly a plane or helped to run a thrift store). I imagine most unschoolers finish up with a knowledge of basic math facts including multiplication tables.

    1. Reply


      I agree with you: Unschoolers do finish up with a knowledge of basic maths facts. Just because I stopped pushing my kids to do maths in a traditional way, doesn’t mean they don’t learn maths. They just learn it in a different way. Maths is such a big part of our lives and so kids can’t fail to come into contact with it and learn it out of need. I also strew a lot of maths in the hope that my kids will like the subject for its own sake. (Sophie does like maths!) If one of my girls needed to study for a maths test, they wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Their biggest challenge, I think, would not be the maths facts but learning how to take a test. That seems to be a skill of its own. But then these things can be learnt as well.

      You mentioned ambitions that might need maths. Ambition can be a strong motivator. Imogen decided to do a higher maths course because she was thinking about applying to do medicine at university. She finished the maths course and then changed her mind about medicine. I asked her about the experience and she said that she was able to learn the maths without any problems, but because she never used the maths, she has now forgotten most of it.

  3. Reply

    My husband teaches statistics at university. He can tell you that most kids coming straight from school have a woeful grasp of maths. They have just studied for the Year 12 maths exams! If any person should have a grasp of maths, that is the time!
    We study higher maths at school because it looks good on the academic record.
    Not many courses require it and not many of us remember it. Except as a point of solidarity with each other on how awful it was or how much we’ve forgotten.
    I also have a beef about how the beauty of maths is destroyed by the way we teach it. It’s like learning English by learning grammar instead of poetry.
    I also think if we had a difficult relationship with maths we worry our kids will miss out if they don’t know that strange difficult thing that tripped us up. So we obsess over it.
    In our family we are introducing our kids to basic concepts for fun in a, hey look what I found out kind of way, and let them expand that knowledge if and when they desire.

    1. Reply


      “I also have a beef about how the beauty of maths is destroyed by the way we teach it. It’s like learning English by learning grammar instead of poetry.” I love your comment!

      I’ve always looked at maths as a puzzle needing to be solved which is okay because I enjoy the challenge of solving problems. But Sophie gave me a different view of maths. She made me realise that it is a creative subject just like English. Yes, we often get stuck at the maths facts level and fail to see the bigger picture. When I strew maths, I go in the opposite direction, hoping that the bigger picture will inspire my kids to find out more about the basics. Maths is indeed a beautiful subject.

      I like your approach to sharing maths with your kids!

    • TL
    • December 1, 2017

    I had to catch up on maths, because I was homeschooled in high school but with almost no oversight, so I did subjects I liked and that were easy for me, but not math.

    I make my kids do math, because I don’t want them to have a similar experience. I also believe math is one area where gradually building up is much better for understanding it than learning it in a few months.

    In theory there is all the time in the world to do and learn what we want when we want but in reality that is not always the case. At least that’s been my experience.

    I think it is one subject that is hard to drop because most people don’t learn higher maths for fun, yet it is a prerequisite for most colleges.

    1. Reply


      You were homeschooled? That’s interesting! Do you wish your parents had directed your learning more? Would you have been happy to do more maths if they had required it? I hope you caught up with the maths and were able to go on and do what you wanted.

      You are right: Most people don’t learn higher maths for fun. I wonder though if more people would be interested in maths if they learnt about it in a different way. My daughter Sophie enjoys watching the Numberphile videos. The mathematicians in those videos are passionate about their subject and know how to pass on their excitement to other people. They make maths come alive. It seems sad that people learn maths just because they have to without discovering its wonders.

Join in the conversation!

%d bloggers like this: