Math Mania Backlash

A while back, I wrote an entry titled “Math Mania”.   Over the weekend, that entry appeared as an article in the NYCHEA newsletter for October.  Apparently, I’ve struck a nerve.  Several people have contacted me to voice their displeasure with the article.  All parents of homeschoolers.   If you recall,  at that time I’d sent out a message to a bunch of people I know, asking them for their experiences with Math in school and growing up, then asked them what they do for a living and what kind of Math they use in their daily lives.   Most people use only basic Math in their daily lives, no matter what their profession.  Most of that basic math has to do with money.


One person said my article was irresponsible, because it would make children think Math is unimportant.   I don’t think I said Math is unimportant.  I did say I think we spend a bit too much time obsessing over it, and perhaps we give it far too much weight in relation to the reality of what we need to know to function well in life.   Someone else said I obviously have a ‘prejudice’ against Math, and just don’t know how to make it fun, through games and challenges.    I asked Maya if she wishes we did number games or challenges, and she looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns and a tail.   (Remember, this is the girl who can make change in her head while walking down the street with no pen or paper in front of her.   It’s not Calculus, maybe, but she does have Math skills).   So I guess I won’t worry too much about not waxing enthusiastic every day over Math games.
Someone else said something like, “that’s the problem with you unschoolers.  You’re against any kind of book learning.”    Which is patently untrue.  Books are wonderful sources of knowledge.  Our house is full of them.   Maya loves her books and reads constantly.   I know that what the person really meant by saying ‘book learning’, is using a curriculum, or textbooks.   I’m not against them per se.   What I’m against is coercion, and the two do seem to go hand in hand, most of the time.   However, if my kids clamored for textbooks and wanted to do workbooks, well then that’s what we’d do.
The only positive comment I’ve received to date was from another unschooling parent.  No wonder I like her so much!

I’m going to let John Holt have the last word here, from an interview he did in 1980.   This is what he had to say about Math:

Interviewer:  What is your philosophy about Math?
Holt:  My approach to math is to say, What do we adults use numbers for? We use them to measure things. And we measure things so that having measured them we can do things with them, or make certain judgements about them. And so I say let children do with numbers what we do with numbers. I’m a great believer in many kinds of measuring instruments – tapes (centimeter tape, inch tapes, rolls of tapes), rulers, scales, thermometers, barometers, metronomes, electric metronomes with lights flashing on and off that you can make go faster and slower, stopwatches, things for time.
Another thing is money. Kids are fascinated by money. We all say: “We’ll have to teach them all this arithmetic so that some day they can deal with money.” I think dealing with money is inherently interesting to children. I say family finances ought to be out on the table, charts on the wall: expenses, food, taxes, insurance, health care, how much this costs, how much it cost last year.
Interviewer:  What subject matter do you see as essential?
Holt:   None.

Thank you, John!

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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