Why My Unschooler Isn’t Going to Learn Any More Maths

(at least for the moment)


I didn’t use trigonometry today. I didn’t use it yesterday. I don’t suppose I’ll get an opportunity to use it tomorrow. Sometimes I wonder why I ever sweated over it, memorising all those cosine, sine and tangent facts. What a waste of time that was! Or was it? You never know… a trigonometry opportunity may be just around the corner. I might get up next week and it will be the perfect trigonometry day. I’ll say, “Hey! It’s just as well I learnt trigonometry. I’d be stuck if I hadn’t. I am so glad I spent all that time learning the facts all those years ago!”

All those years ago? Oops! It’s been rather a long time since I last sat down and worked out a maths problem using trigonometry. I don’t actually think I remember much about it. I spent a long time learning it and I have forgotten everything I ever knew. What am I to do?

I guess if that trigonometry situation does arise I could always Google ‘trigonometry’. How long do you think it would take me to learn what I need to know? If I really need to know it, I’m thinking not long at all.

So why did I waste all that time at school learning trigonometry? Well, I didn’t have much choice. I was made to ‘learn’ it. Except I didn’t really learn it at all. I memorised enough to get me through the maths exam and then promptly forgot it. You see, I had no use for it. It didn’t seem worth retaining all those facts.

But I got a good grade in maths. Surely that was an achievement? Yes, I can say, “I did advanced maths and I got into the top percentile when comparing my results with all the other students in my year.” That sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Not everyone can say that. I can still boast about it, even today. But it’s an empty boast. “Let’s sit down and do some trigonometry,” someone might say. “I’m much too busy to do that,” I protest. I wouldn’t like him to find out I know nothing about the subject. All that’s left of my knowledge is a vague memory of angles and calculators.

If one day when we’re sitting in our aeroplane seats flying over Australia, one of my daughters turns to me and says, “Mum, what distance did our plane travel before taking off?” I could always Google the formula I need to work it out, assuming I have Internet access from my seat. I admit if I am unable to Google straight-away, I might wish I’d memorised the facts. But it wouldn’t make much difference if I did have an intimate knowledge of trigonometry because I’d have to wait for another piece of important information.  I would need to ask the pilot what angle his plane took off at, relative to the ground, wouldn’t I? I can hardly do that when the plane is in mid-air.

And if a neighbour leaves a ladder leaning against his house with its top rung level with the intersection of the wall and roof, and one of my girls notices as we stroll by on our way to the village store, and asks, “How long do you think that ladder is, Mum?” I might be able to tell her if I again know the right formula. Of course I’d need to know the height of the house and the angle the ladder makes with the wall. Wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be easier to lay the ladder down on the ground and measure it with a tape measure?

I discovered these two examples of trigonometry by Googling ‘everyday use of trigonometry’. Everyday use? I don’t think I have ever come across problems such as these in my everyday life.

But what about my career life? There was no need for me to know trigonometry when I worked in a research lab in a veterinary physiology department of a university. But what if I’d had a different job? What if I’d needed that information? Wouldn’t I have been grateful I had learnt all those formulae? For of course school was my one and only opportunity to learn such things. Or was it? If I had suddenly made the decision to enter a field where advanced maths skills were needed, I could have done a course there and then, couldn’t I?

Charlotte (16) and I are talking about what she wants to learn about this year. “How about maths? Do you want to do the higher maths course?”

Charlotte screws up her face. “When am I ever going to need to know such things as trigonometry?”

“Well you never know,” I reply. “You could learn it just in case.”

What am I saying?

“What if you need it in the future?”

“Then I’ll learn it then. It’s never too late.”

“So you feel you know enough maths for now?”

Charlotte nods her head.

You don’t want to learn more just for the fun of it?”


Sophie might choose to explore maths simply because she enjoys it, but not Charlotte.

What will everyone say when they find out my 16 year old daughter is not going to finish the HSC maths course? “She might need maths… It’s good mental exercise… Isn’t she clever enough to do it?”

Oh she’s clever all right. She’s cleverer than I ever was. She’s not going to waste her time on something that might never be needed, when there’s so many other things she wants to do. And if she ever does need higher maths, she’s clever enough to learn it quickly without all those years of repetitive examples.

And I think I’m quite happy about that. I’m letting go of old ideas and other people’s expectations. Why is that so difficult sometimes?

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    • Gina
    • February 9, 2014

    When I was in high school, I loved math! I thought that everyone should take at least one calculus class at the minimum. Then I attended a science and engineering college that required every student to complete two semesters of calculus at the minimum. However, as the years have gone by and I see the struggles my one son, in particular, has with math, I no longer feel this way. However, in the USA students need a minimum of certain math areas on heir high school transcript to be accepted in college. What to do in this situation? In the USA students can also just take the GED instead of submitting a high school transcript. We may have our children do this anyway because there is a college scholarship program in our state and homeschoolers need to take the GED to qualify. What are the rules in Australia? I have to say this is an area that is difficult for me to work thorough. My husband has a Ph.D in Chemistry. I have two BS degrees. There are 4,000 people at the Lab in our town with Ph.Ds in science areas. My one son has always been "engineering inclined" but hates math!

    1. Reply


      It must be very difficult when a child who does not enjoy maths or does not need it, has to do it anyway because of regulations or college requirements.

      We've had some changes in our homeschooling regulations recently and I'm not 100 % sure of the current requirements but this is what I believe… A child has to remain in school or homeschool until he turns 17. There is no need for that child to do higher maths. He could just work to a year 10 level which is what Charlotte has done.

      As far as university or college goes, there may be a maths requirement for some courses, but not all. Imogen was considering applying to do medicine at one point, so she completed the higher school certificate maths course. She changed her mind about what she wanted to study and now is doing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Professional Writing and Publishing. No maths is needed for this course. At this stage Charlotte doesn't think she'll want to pursue a career in a mathematical or scientific field. She is more arts orientated. If she changes her mind, she can complete a pre-university maths course.

      I liked maths at school and used some of it when I studied science. I initially thought it would be a good experience for my children to do higher maths too 'just in case'. But I have come to accept, although they might be capable of doing such a course, they just aren't interested. And it's quite okay for them to be who they are with their own interests.

  1. Reply

    Not a math person..but actually remember learning trig and enjoying it, shockingly!
    Awesome….your fam is so fun!!

    Just stopping in to say hi!

    Have a lovely day, Sue!!

    1. Reply


      Yes, maths can be enjoyable! Even if it's not needed, some people might want to learn it anyway. I could see Sophie doing this. Actually I did like getting the right maths answers. It was satisfying work. I guess I like problem solving and a challenge. But I still can't see much use for most of it in my life!

      Always good to chat. Thank you for stopping by!

  2. Reply

    I was pushed into physics, chem, and advanced math by our school who were trying to push the more academic girls into sciences to improve the balance. Like you I can't remember much of it. What a complete waste of time, I much preferred the other subjects! I probably would have gone on to do something I loved rather than end up a bit lost with my career choice! It's great that Charlotte can make her own decisions and not regret years of wasted schooling. I do agree though it's hard to let go of getting them to learn stuff "just in case" they need it.

    1. Reply


      I was pushed into science and maths too. 'You're clever enough so that's what you should do.' It's a pity the arts aren't valued as much. We were always taught to view them as second choice subjects. "I probably would have gone on to do something I loved rather than end up a bit lost with my career choice!" That's my story exactly!

      I suppose deep down inside us we haven't forgotten what people told us at school, so it's hard to let go and do things differently. What if??? Yes, the 'just in case' argument keeps cropping up. The 'it's never too late' answer makes so much sense though. Anyway, Charlotte is stubborn. She knows what she wants to do. I guess that means no more maths until she decides differently, if ever!

  3. Reply

    You are so lucky you have the option to forgo math. My state in the USA is so strict about it!

    1. Reply


      Yes, we are more fortunate than many homeschoolers, though maths is mandatory to a certain level. Charlotte has completed the school certificate maths course. This is completed in year 10 of school. Her last units of work were on algebra. She could move onto the higher school certificate course which is a 2 year course or a general maths course. I guess she'd still be expected to do some kind of maths if she was in school. I guess she'll still be using maths so we could record all her everyday maths experiences as proof she is 'doing' maths' or she could review what she's already done. No need to extend her knowledge to a higher level at this time.

      I hope you're able to work out a way to satisfy both your children's needs and the state authorities!

  4. Reply

    Yay!!! How I would have loved to have YOU for my teacher! (which would have been tough since you were either a wee babe or not yet born… but that's just a minor detail). Oh the things I learned "just for tests." Not one of which remains in my mind today. 🙂

    1. Reply


      There is something very wrong about a system which teaches 'just for tests'. I love this quote by Albert Einstein:

      "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school."

      It's just as well I'm getting a second chance to get a real education because I've forgotten most of what I learnt at school!

  5. Reply

    My two favorite quotes:

    "Oh she’s clever all right. She’s cleverer than I ever was. She’s not going to waste her time on something that might never be needed, when there's so many other things she wants to do." Haha–I love this!

    "I’m letting go of old ideas and other people’s expectations. Why is that so difficult sometimes?" It is so difficult though, even letting go of MY old ideas and expectations. In fact, maybe that's the hardest of all.

  6. Reply


    Letting go of old ideas… maybe there's safety in numbers. if we fail (or our children fail) we can say it's not our fault. We only did things the way most people do, the acceptable way. But if we go our own way and fail we'll feel responsible. It's a risk. But is that risk really that big? Perhaps it all comes down to being willing to face the criticism of those who disagree with our way of doing things. I hope that makes some kind of sense. I think I'm tired!

    btw, Charlotte is not missing her maths at all. She seems to be getting on quite okay without the higher maths. I still think she'll be able to learn it quickly if her situation changes and she does find a need for it after all!

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