Math Think

One of the questions we run into a lot, as a radically unschooling family, is how will they learn higher level math if kids aren’t forced to learn the math facts traditionally, especially if they want to go to college and go into a math or science field.

The kids loved building this arch and finding out how arches actually work and why at the Children’s Museum.

Though my husband chose not to go to college he is in a math field: 3-D object-oriented programming requires a ton of math, everything from trig, geometry, and algebra to physics. He uses maths regularly, usually in his head without ever looking up formula.

This is a man who never took more than business math in school (and never did homework there – you can read about his experience in his autobiography). He is completely self-taught in programming and maths, and he does it because he loves it.

Not only that, but he understands what he knows well enough to talk about it in a way that non-programmers can understand – and apparently enjoy – what he is talking about, if his blog is any indication.

Shamus on the computer in my dorm room in college. This was only a few months after he spent a few weeks teaching himself algebra and trigonometry so he could understand a concept in C++.

The thing about math that most people don’t even realize is that once you get past “learning math” – especially in math and science fields – it is mostly creative, conceptual problem solving rather than just “knowing the facts.”

You do learn the facts, but that is because you use them regularly. If you can’t remember something you look it up. Shamus has memorized a lot of formulas now but that is because he uses them daily, not because he memorized them for a test. Our kids play with numbers with him regularly because it is fun and it is a natural part of life.

There is a huge difference between the boring, black and white facts and conceptual math. Also, there is a ton of math use when drawing and painting – I use math regularly when I paint.

The difference between memorizing math facts and using conceptual math is like the difference between knowing how to diagram a sentence and knowing how to form a beautiful one. Diagramming a sentence may be useful but it won’t help you communicate with written language.

Then there are word meanings, the etymology of words, homonyms and homophones and synonyms, and all sorts of things that go well beyond basic sentence structure and colloquialisms, and, and, and

These are the things that make words and language fun. Math is the same way.

At the moment of this writing my 10-year-old son is considering how he could build Frank Loyd Wright’s “Falling Water” in Minecraft, drawing the ideas on graph paper (complete with ruler), and deciding whether it can be done at all.

What we laypeople think of as “math” is not what people in the field think of as math. I say this as a non-math person myself: I am a word person surrounded by people who love numbers and play with them all the time and who work in the field.

My brothers play with math regularly. My middle brother worked at NASA as an electrical engineer until just last month thanks to the changes in the program; my other brother is going into metal fabrication and blacksmithing and you would not believe the number use in that.

My dad was a math major in college (traditionally schooled) and a math teacher until he took on computers. My dad almost failed math all through school because he had no memory for “facts” but when he got to college and past the “basic math” he fell in love with the logic and concepts and the fact that math is really just playing with numbers and figuring things out.

My dad says, “You can always look up the facts if you need them; the important part is being able to play with numbers.

Once you start noticing it you see math everywhere, from perspective (how it seems the building is bigger the closer you are) and the math involved in building that structure to the math used to calculate speed in the cars or how much the gas costs per gallon to the arch of the rainbow. It is how our world is designed.

Part of deschooling is learning to see math not as scary numbers but rather as a different way of thinking and seeing the world. Math is everywhere and part of everything and learning to see it as patterns and rhythms and part of how God created the world, part of the very structure, allows us to no longer fear it or teach our children to fear it.

~ Heather

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