So the Wide Sky Days conference was a massive fail as far as I’m concerned. I went to the first panel, “Unschooling Basics” and found the talk interesting (though there were a number of things about it I disliked); but when I asked a question at the end, the speaker told me point-blank that she “doubted” what I was telling her about what PK wanted to learn, math-wise.

My question, from memory:

I’m new to home/unschooling, and I’m trying to figure out a way to help my son learn the math he wants to learn. He is great at mathematical reasoning and really loves math, but after a bad experience last year in middle school, he is adamant about not wanting an algorithmic approach. So I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for how to take a more conceptual approach to higher math, from algebra up?

Phrases from her answer, which I wrote down as she said them because I was so surprised and frankly pissed off at what I was hearing, so they’re accurate:

  • Maybe he doesn’t need or want that
  • I doubt you
  • There’s nothing wrong with him not achieving his potential

Now, I get where she was coming from: here’s a parent, admittedly new to unschooling, who is maybe imposing what she wants her kid to be learning onto the kid. And not everyone is super-elegant at phrasing all the time.

But. The speaker here is first of all, a math professor–which is why I differentiated between “algorithmic” and conceptual math–and she doubts that someone can love math even if they’ve had a terrible experience with algorithmic-based math education? (I mean for god’s sake, she wrote this–which was the kind of answer I was looking for.) And second of all, and most importantly, she’s apparently kind of a bigwig in California home/unschooling circles, and she’s telling a new homeschooler straight up and to her face that she, the speaker, knows better than I do about what my kid’s educational desires and needs are even though she’s never met my kid?

Just, wow.

So, as it became increasingly clear that she just didn’t have an answer for me, I sat back down and, once she started answering the next question, gathered my stuff and left. I went to find PK, who was minecrafting in the game room, and, when he saw me, said, “I’m bored here and this room is too noisy for me to really think and the other kids are bugging the shit out of me by coming over here and looking over my shoulder and interrupting me. Can we go home?”

I asked him if we could have lunch while I thought about it. Normally I would have told him to hang in there for a while because there was a talk later about video game-based learning that was actually the talk I most wanted to hear. And because we had just gotten there, really (I walked into the first talk late), and I hadn’t had a chance yet to look around or talk to other folks.

Instead, we talked about why he wanted to go and I told him a little bit about what I’d heard (his response: “really? She said that to you?”). And I realized that what I really wanted was to go ask for my money back and leave, and that though I am too much of a rule-follower to do the first part, I could do the second part–and that doing so would be reassuring to PK that if he is willing to try these jaunts with me, I am willing to let us leave if he ends up not enjoying them.

So we drove home.

(I have more thoughts and reflections on the experience, which I will post later.)



15 responses to “Un-unschooling

  • suepatterson

    I’m so sad to hear this was your experience.

    It’s too bad you couldn’t get real life examples of ways that math basically infiltrates life. I’m sure Pam could give way more examples than me. I had to go look up what you meant by algorithm vs conceptual math – I’m not that smart! lol

    I have sat in on many of these kinds of talks as well as email lists where Q & A’s are prevalent. So I could take a stab at what she meant…
    “Maybe he doesn’t need or want that” That might actually be true for now, since he has recently had bad experiences. And many new people are so worried about making sure their kids “get” math – they simply blow off the unschoolng principles of natural curiosity etc. But you are right in that, you as his mother are the most likely person to be able to assess this.
    “I doubt you” Not sure where that was going. Maybe when you write more.
    “Achieving potential” As a parent, I always want my kid to do their best, achieve their potential. But it isn’t always on the kid’s radar. They have to choose it – you know that concept of their path, not ours? And there’s not a finish line, per se. They have their whole life to achieve their potential.

    Those are my initial thoughts too. I’m hoping I don’t piss you off too – because I’m interested in having this conversation with you.

  • albe

    What a terrible response from the speaker.

    I’m a math-ed professor (and a former math teacher) who studies students’ learning in mathematics at the middle school and high school levels. The work I do is all about supporting kids’ conceptual understanding, rather than just teaching them to mimic procedural algorithms. If PK is interested in algebra and above, so high-school level math, one decent set of resources is called IMP: http://www.mathimp.org/. Another source is Core Plus, which also focuses on developing conceptual understanding, but it has a few more drawbacks than IMP. IMP has its own set of drawbacks as well; none of the curricula out there are perfect, but it does take an innovative approach to many topics, including function understanding. So it might be a helpful resource, especially if you also get the teacher’s materials.

    Feel free to email me if you’d like to talk more.

  • tedra


    I agree with your interpretation of what she meant–and at the time, I responded to each of her remarks with an attempt to clarify (“I hear what you’re saying about not pushing him and I agree, but he really is interested in math, just not in the textbook”). I didn’t respond to her comment about his “potential,” because by that point I was too angry–but it halfway addressed what would have been another question I wanted to ask (I decided to opt for the math question instead, because it dovetailed with something someone else had asked): can you or anyone speak to unschooling gifted kids, specifically? Because I am wondering, frankly, about the realism of her advice in the talk to fully embrace one’s kid’s interests: it’s difficult, for example, to figure out how to provide my kid with the science lab he wishes he had without signing him up for a class–but right now he is adamantly against being signed up for a class. I am hoping, of course, that in a few years his aversion to formal education will have waned (and that he will be more mature, frankly, and self-directed and thus able to take a college course, which right now frankly he would not be able to do without a great deal of pushing from me that I don’t want to do)–but in the meantime I am concerned about not being *able* to let him pursue his interest in science at a level that’s commensurate with his ability.

    Your response doesn’t make me angry, and I would like to continue the conversation as well. But I do find it interesting that your response is to try to explain what the speaker meant. I understand the impulse entirely–I’m an unknown quantity and I have no doubt that I’m demonstrating a lot of presumptions about homeschooling that many homeschoolers have dealt with before–but, as with the speaker’s own responses, yours doesn’t address the actual questions I have. I’m finding myself frustrated, frequently, by looking at homeschool resources–books about homeschooling, websites of homeschool organizations, articles linked to by homeschool orgs on FB–and finding not nearly enough specifics that are suitable to my situation. Where I see specific resources being discussed, they’re often overtly Christian, which I do not want, or else they don’t meet the needs of my extremely bright kid, whose intellectual interests are beyond his emotional maturity (IOW, a lot of resources for highschool/college learning presume a kind of self-discipline that he doesn’t yet have).

    I know, as a former English professor, ways of talking to him about literature, say, that work well with his attention span, his irreverence, his interests: I can listen to him talk about video games and recognize that he’s constructing an argument with text-based evidence, that he has a clear thesis (and if not, I can ask him questions to help him develop one), and so forth. I don’t have the background in math and science to do that with him.

    I did some science activities in his 4-5 class, for instance, and they were great for kids that age: the kids got excited about and were able to draw simple models of the atomic structures of the elements, for example. But my son was bored: “Mama, you’re teaching them the Bohr model of the atom, which isn’t an accurate representation.” Of COURSE I was teaching the Bohr model–for 10-year olds, it’s a good way to grasp what atoms are, it lets kids understand the difference between a nucleus, an electron, and a proton, it’s easily drawn, etc.–and I DON’T KNOW what other models are out there! But my kid does…

  • tedra

    @Albe: THANK YOU. I agree, both that it was a terrible response (and regardless of what she *intended*, I think that the larger issue of who “represents” home/unschoolers and how they do that is an important one that’s central to my inquiries into home/unschooling). I am *hoping* that people who read this post and want to be welcoming to new home/unschoolers can learn something about how to do that, you know?

    But more importantly, thank you so very much for the link to the IMP. I will look into that, and into Core Plus–one of the things that I’m starting to think about home/unschooling is that we–at least I–need much more contact and sharing of resources and ideas with professional educators. I was trying to talk about that divide in an earlier post, actually.

    And yes, I will send you an email immediately. Thank you also for inviting me to do so. :-)

  • suepatterson

    OK, glad we can continue the conversation.
    My only reason to defend the comments was because often I see people get information in a way that offends them and then they say, “OK, no unschooling for us!” and I’d hate to see that happen.

    Also, in responding to you, I don’t have a lot of conceptual math background to share. None of my 3 kids were very math-y, and neither was I. It wasn’t really our focus.

    But science…that’s an area I can speak to. We loved so many different topics in the area of science. We often gathered kids together for different activities, different parents leading on the topic – sometimes even hiring outside people to come in for particular topics. We lived in several different places and we always found doctors or biologists or others who were willing to step up. There were catalogs of science kits, supplies and equipment – we’d split it among the families interested. Being involved with the local support group was usually the first step for that kind of networking. This kind of small group learning might be more appealing to PK.

    My kids are older, so I’m not sure if my references would be current for you…and even though we didn’t homeschool for religious reasons, we often used Christian catalogs to get access to various supplies. So I wouldn’t rule all that out.

    Oh! And I just got a science email – I signed up for several over the years, and there are quite a few out there now that might be fun for you:

    Hope some of this helps.

  • ingimc

    What a fascinating experience (awful, but fascinating). I find a lot of these people don’t “get” it. Good on you for leaving.

    I just wrote a post about maths and homeschooling – http://ingidefyinggravity.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/maths-musings.html – maybe you will find something in my ramblings that makes sense for you and PK?

  • Robin Stevenson

    Just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying your blog. I am also a GHF member and have an 8 year old who I think is probably a lot like your son- loves science, math concepts, arguing, complex social issues etc… does not like being taught, writing,repetition, imposed structure etc. We started unschooling after a few painful weeks of first grade, and for us it has been wonderful (most days, anyway!). Just wanted to say hello and good luck :)

  • tedra

    @Sue–thanks! Yeah, the point of my post was more “this is not a good way to represent unschooling” than it was “obviously unschooling isn’t for me!” Appreciate the suggestions…

  • tedra

    @imgimc–thanks for the words of support. :-)

    Also for your description of how you guys are using Khan. PK is interested in Khan, so I will try that. I admit my own predelections are always to go step-by-step (in college I deliberately structured all my major courses to proceed in chronological order)…

    (And is it wrong of me to say that I am more inclined to credit you because you’ve taught h.s. math? Because I am.)

  • tedra


  • Buffalo Mama

    […] and chosen materials. So, for instance, the Interactive Mathematics Program that albe recommended. Yes, I am having to “force” him to do it in the sense that he is not going and picking […]

  • One Day at a Time « Buffalo Mama

    […] and chosen materials. So, for instance, the Interactive Mathematics Program that albe recommended. Yes, I am having to “force” him to do it in the sense that he is not going and picking […]

  • amoreena

    I’m sorry that you had that experience. By now you may know that the particular speaker you interacted with is famous for this type of response.

    I’ve been unschooling for 7 years (since my oldest was 3) and have walked out of talks & conferences as well. Must notable when it was implied that I was doing something wrong by keeping my daughter on a special diet that helped to treat her asd while another mother was praised by letting her dairy-allergic daughter eat so much dairy that she ended up in the hospital.

    Anyhow, hope you have found lots of fun ways to enjoy math!

  • tedra

    Amoreena, thanks–we’ve been working on it and are getting some forward motion….

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