domingo, 29 de julio de 2012

What about Maths?

Most of our friends and family now accept the fact that we unschool. Some still don't like it, but they know better than to tell me that to my face. They nod their heads when I'm not looking and mutter, 'She's making a mistake, poor kids.' Some other family members or close friends say what I'm doing is fine at least until the kids reach high school age, except for one thing.

What about maths?

What they mean is, it's okay to just play, invent, climb trees, watch ninja videos on youtube, read comic books and not get serious about stuffing knowledge into the kids, but they do have to know their numbers! And they should do it soon, before they get too old and it is too late. A friend with two young kids like mine recently showed me what her oldest, who is in year 1 like Dave would be, is doing at school. She thought she was giving me a hand by doing this, so Dave could keep up with what kids are doing at school. Two other friends, both single men without children, expressed their concern about the children not learning mathematics in the traditional way. One of them even said, 'Who is going to teach them maths? Not you! You are good with letters and know how to put a sentence or two together, but numbers... not really your thing, is it?'

Lucky I'm used to being condescended to (I like to think it is because of my childish nature), so I didn't take offence. I will not be the one to teach Dave and Alex maths (I'll get to that later), but I have a few things to say in my defence. I do love reading and writing, but I also love numbers. I do because maths is about solving problems; it's practical and logical, just like I am. When I was at school I loved maths and I was good at it. Then in year 7 I had a bad math teacher, although she said I was a bad math student. Everyone believed her so I did too. I earned a label that I'd be stuck with for years. It said, 'She really sucks at math.' And in the end I did. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though I still really enjoyed the subject! In high school I dropped every subject to do with maths so I could graduate and get to university. A few years later I went to live in the US and because nobody knew me there I took a math course at college. It had been a few years since I had done any mathematical thinking aside from simple additions and subtractions, but... I did really well! I regained the trust in myself that I had lost when I was eleven. I got all As in my math subjects and years later I worked as a math tutor.

So if I really wanted to teach Dave and Alex maths, I could do it. But I won't because there's no need. They already know how to add and subtract; they even know how to multiply and divide. I've never taught them this. I simply do it myself. When I need to count I do it out loud. When I'm in the kitchen following a recipe I also do it out loud and get them involved. And they ask about numbers all the time. I tell them what I know. They play with Lego all day long, building by following the instructions or making up new models. That is maths. Besides, they are billingual and have always been. That means their brains are developing in a different way to those of monolingual children; they are more flexible. They are constantly switching from English to Spanish, depending on who they are with and they use both languages to communicate with each other. This means they change from a whole set of grammar rules and vocabulary to another several times a day. That is an enormous brain effort which seems to come quite natural to them. For this reason bilingual kids have proved to be better at maths and other types of languages, like music, than monolingual ones. Their brains get wired, from the beginning, to follow different logical patterns.

As they get older and their interest in arithmetics, trigonometry or logarithms expands, as I'm sure it will, Dave and Alex themselves will be able to find the resources to feed their urge to learn, probably online. And they will do so more effectively than if they were in a classroom with thirty other pupils. I am constantly learning new things that involve mathematical thinking and I am a lot older and less smart than they are. For example, I just taught myself some html in order to format one of my books to sell as an ebook. So if I can do it all by myself, they will too. In other words, they have a few thousand more chances than I had of becoming rocket scientists, precisely because nobody is teaching them anything about maths.

Despite all this, sometimes I do feel the pressure from well-meaning friends. After all, Dave still won't write anything down, be that a number or a letter. All his calculations and inventions are done without taking notes. He did go through a stage when he would copy the numbers on the clock, but that was a long time ago. So one day not long ago I said to him, 'How about I buy one of those posters with the time tables so you can look at them and memorise them?'

'No, I don't need a poster!' he said, a bit offended. 'I will figure it out myself.'

'Ok, great!' I always get very happy to see that he won't give in to any social pressure. 'By not buying the poster we just saved eight dollars!'

'So we can buy an icypole for me and another one for Alex and we'll still have three dollars to spare!' said Dave.