My oldest, Thomas, has just entered sixth grade – at least, according to the public school that oversees our unschooling adventure. The last time he had anything remotely resembling a formal math lesson was when he was five years old, and I was still in my “we’re doing things exactly like school, but in a tiny room in our home” phase. Needless to say, the curriculum was hardly taxing: we counted colored bears and categorized Halloween candy. Every once in a while we solved a story problem for good measure.
But somewhere between kindergarten and first grade, our family made the switch to unschooling, and that was pretty much the end of mathematics – as a curriculum, anyway. Once we began learning through real life, we discovered a richer type of mathematics – one that was embedded in much of what we did just going about our days. We cooked, we saved money, we spent money, we divided up the brownies fairly, we watched the clock when friends were due to arrive, and so on, and so on. The beauty of this math was that it was practical, immediately applicable (no “when will I ever use this in real life?” histrionics here), and done largely in our heads, rather than with pencil and paper. I could see Thomas develop his ability to think flexibly about numbers since he wasn’t tied to a particular method or algorithm for solving problems. I watched him dissect numbers, round up, round down, adjust accordingly, all to make things easier to handle in his head. I felt this was an excellent skill in itself. Because, honestly, I’m not the kind to carry a mini-calculator or pad of paper in my purse just in case I need to figure out something on the go. I’m a “do-it-in-my-head” kind of girl. And it’s served me well when I’m out and about, doing the mathematics of the real world.
But there’s always been a niggling little voice in the back of my head. I call it my teacher voice, and it whines at me, particularly at the beginning of the school year. “It’s all well and good that he can add in his head,” it fusses, “but what about harder math? He’s never going to encounter a four digit subtraction problem that requires borrowing while he’s baking brownies.” That annoying little voice used to cause me quite a bit of anxiety until my research uncovered one very reassuring fact: many unschoolers eventually do choose to take some formal mathematics, and when they do, they are often able to cover the conventional math taught K-12 in a fraction of the time it takes their schooled counterparts.
Apparently, I’m not the only one with a whiny inner voice, though. Recently, Thomas shared with me his concern that he wasn’t “as smart” as his friends in school because he didn’t know the same material. My attempt at reassuring him that he could trust the unschooling process fell on deaf ears. Other sixth graders were doing math problems – lots of them – and even more for homework. He absolutely needed to know he could do the same. I realized that the moment I’d read about had arrived: my unschooled son wanted some formal math. Here was the moment of truth. Would the research match my own experience? Or would I discover, to my horror, that my child was woefully undereducated, and the whiny teacher voice had been right all along?
I enrolled Thomas in Khan Academy, an online resource with a mission to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” We decided he’d work thirty minutes a day. I really had no idea at what level to start him, so I decided just to begin at the beginning. The first level of mathematics covers grades K-2, so that’s where I placed him. I figured better safe than sorry; if he had an early gaps, I wanted to know about them.
As of today, Thomas is 8 days in. He’s spent a grand total of 4 hours. He’s already mastered 55% of the material covered in grades K, 1 and 2, from adding large numbers, to reading graphs, to subtraction with borrowing (it took him about 5 minutes to get that concept). I sit by him, at the ready in case he needs a quick tutorial. Sometimes he does. But he picks up the idea in minutes, not weeks or months like many of the school children I taught. Mostly, he gets stumped because his own approach is so effective that backing up to do things in a more traditional way feels nonsensical and cumbersome. But he’s finding ways to integrate his thinking with these different methods.
I realize that he’s not yet converting fractions to decimals or performing wondrous feats of long division. But at 55% in four hours, I like his trajectory. Our goal is to be caught up to sixth grade by the end of the school year. Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to take that long. But exactly how long it takes isn’t really what’s important. Thomas has set out to accomplish something, set out to measure himself against his peers and discover whether he’s got what it takes. What’s important is that Thomas sees himself as capable of what he’s set his mind to do. And as we end each lesson with a peek at his mastery percentage, I see his eyes light up. I see him gain another spark of confidence in himself and his ability. And no mathematics lesson could ever measure what that’s worth.
Thomas completed the “early math” section (grades K, 1 and 2) in under 8 hours of work. Each time he encountered an unfamiliar concept he was able to quickly comprehend my explanation and apply it successfully to his work. My favorite part of this journey was when, at 99%, he eagerly called me over so that I could participate in the exact moment he reached 100%. Seeing how proud he was of his accomplishment: priceless!