Maths and Homeschooling

There is an article on a site that promotes homeschooling that pretty much summarises the reasons why I think home-schooling is not such a good idea. It was always the homeschoolers that convinced me, not its detractors.

With a title “5 reasons why you don’t need to teach math” we don’t get off to a promising start. Possibly unintentionally, the writer raises a lot more issues than just maths. Have a look and come back.

So, let’s start with 5 reasons why you (supposedly) don’t need to teach math and the look at some reasons that I think you need to teach maths to all children. Note that in this sort of discussion “math” often means arithmetic.

5 reasons why you (supposedly) don’t need to teach math.

1. Learning fundamental math is like reading – kids will take the lead.

This is absolute nonsense. Children might seem to take the lead with language but that is when they are surrounded by rich spoken and written language used by the adults and older children around them and are motivated to work it all out.

Likewise, children who grow up in families where mathematical concepts are part of life and everyday language learn as toddlers that sandwiches can be cut into squares or triangles, they learn shapes, sizes, counting, addition, subtraction and more in the same way that they learn to speak and read.

A child of parents who have no interest or knowledge of maths will be deprived in the same way that a child from a home with little language and reading.

2. It’s like science. You can learn on the job.

Well no, you can’t, because you won’t get the job in the first place. You might build on your knowledge in your jobs but you need whatever is considered to be the basics of that job to get the opportunity. This statement also assumes that a “job” is the only reason to learn – more on that later.

3. Math is learning a way to think. There are many ways to do this.

Yes, maths does teach many concepts and ways of thinking. Some of them could be learned or developed in other ways. For example, logic is an integral part of maths, science and language and all are ways to learn ideas of logic and proofs but they overlap, they don’t replace each other.

I think part of the detractors’ problem is that they don’t realise when they are using maths.  If we do something as simple as share a cake, or double the recipe, we can express that as language or algebra, but it is still basic maths.

4. Teaching math beyond the basics is useless. You have to teach to curiosity instead.

This is pretty meaningless. Both sentences are assertions with no logical connection between them. The writer expands this to “you cannot teach math effectively without curiosity about math in the first place” and appears to think that the curiosity must by inborn and very specific. A good teacher (whether at school or home) will work to find ways to inspire curiosity and the desire to learn beyond a student’s current horizons, and will develop strategies to make their teaching connect with the student’s interests.

Of course as well as inspiring curiosity, you can kill it. Too often this happens in formal schooling, usually by teachers who, like this writer, regard maths as nothing more than a chore and so pass that attitude on. It’s not a matter formal schooling versus home schooling – it’s a matter of the ability and attitude of the teacher. A mathematically inept teacher can be a set-back for a year which is bad enough but at least there is a chance that exposure to other teachers during the school career, will overcome or ameliorate the damage.

5. If your kid is good at math, you don’t need to teach them.

I think this is the worst one of all. If a child shows a real talent, passion or interest in something, we owe it to the child to expose them to teachers who can inspire them and feed their interests and give them the challenges required to develop their skills and enjoy the fruits of mastering the content. Homeschoolers who fail to do this are just as bad as schools that fail to do this.

Reasons that you need to teach maths to all students.

Education is not just about the here and now. Skills and attitudes learned during childhood shape lives in unpredictable ways. It is about much more than getting a job.

1. Maths is a form of literacy.

You need good basic math skills to understand public discourse and for critical analysis of the statistics and percentages that are used by advertisers, politicians and others who seek to persuade or manipulate.

Percentages are a basic – but what does it really mean when they claim that you get up to 20% more while price has only gone up by $1, or you get 15% off if you make a deposit upfront? How does compound interest work on your investments and your credit card?

Statistics are often manipulated, misunderstood, misconstrued and misrepresented usually in the form of colourful graphs and unproven claims

Statistics are even worse. It is one thing to understand the numbers, but to also understand how those numbers were produced is necessary to avoid being misled or manipulated. Statistics are often manipulated, misunderstood, misconstrued and misrepresented usually in the form of colourful graphs and unproven claims in fields as wide-ranging as marketing, advertising, politics, financial services, budgeting, physical and mental health experiments and research.
So just as reading critically is important, basic mathematical skills including arithmetic, percentages, statistics, geometry, and reading tables and graphs are part of the toolkit we should aim for all children to acquire in order for them to be able to navigate public discourse as adults.

2. Basic Maths skills are needed for control over your life and finances.

Without arithmetic and algebra and the knowledge of using and really understanding spreadsheets, you have no way of managing your finances, no way of assessing whether the “investment” being sold to you is a good idea, no way of knowing if the clerk in your business or the treasurer of your organisation is quietly defrauding you.

3. There is nothing wrong with knowledge for knowledge sake.

Following the child’s interests is one of the pet themes of the homeschooling and unschooling movement. While deriding formal schooling for teaching to a set curriculum, they often propose the equivalent of vocational education at its lowest – you only need to learn things if you think you might need them.

The other place I remember hearing the “why learn it if you’ll never use it” argument is in the defensive complaints of school students. “Why should I learn it, I’ll never need it,” they say. What a depressing thought. Where is the hope of unknown and unpredictable adventure in life?  What about the fields and careers that the children and their educators don’t even know about? What about the yet-to-be-imagined technology and careers that this century will bring?

It also ignores the complexity of education. Education is not a sequential or linear process. Something you come across now might seem unimportant until one day, possibly years or decades away, it syncs with other knowledge or experiences and becomes a meaningful part of the puzzle.

You can never know too much in life. The greater problem is that there is not time to follow all paths so you have to let some go while you pursue others. The more basics in every field we help children acquire, the wider range of opportunities they will have in 10, 20 and 40 years. And the more basics they have the better they can decide which experts to trust.

Refusing or failing to provide basic language, mathematical and scientific skills not only narrows children’s options down, it can make them unaware that options are even there.


So, 5 reasons not to teach math  from Penelope Trunk versus 3 reasons to teach maths from me.  If there are 2 more reasons presented does that mean that she is right and I am wrong?  What skills will you need to answer that question?

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Category: Education, Learning & Skills
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