For the love of reading and math

A friend of mine told me today that forcing kids to memorize times tables (or any mathematical equations)  is the equivalent of forcing someone to memorize an already completed crossword puzzle.   Not only is it excruciatingly boring, but it takes all the fun, all the discovery & creativity out of the process.

He’s right, of course.

The biggest crime committed in schools today under the guise of “learning” is forcing reading and math on kids.   Forcing them at ever younger ages to forgo their own interests and creativity for the drudgery of “have to’s”.    Reading and math are at the forefront because they are the two subjects everyone thinks are of ultimate importance in an education.   We unschoolers know this because it is the first question we are asked when we tell people that our kids learn without any sort of coercion or forced curriculum whatsoever.   “But what about MATH?!”   takes precedence, followed closely by “But how can they learn to READ?!”

I am not disputing the importance of reading and math.   They are hugely important tools, used sometimes for practical matters and other times for sheer pleasure.

Because of that, kids should never be forced to learn either of them.

That’s right.  Forcing a kid to learn to read before he is ready is the surest way to kill a love of reading.  Oh, he’ll learn how, but odds are he’ll hate it.   Why do you think that, according to a study by the Jenkins Group in 2003, 42% of college grads never read another book?  NEVER.  80% of U.S. households did not buy or read a book in 2002 (the year before the study was done.)  57% of all books purchased are never finished.    1/3 of all high school grads never read another book in their lives.  (And of those that do, some do so in college & then become part of that 42% statistic.)

Appalling?  Well, considering how more and more kids have reading shoved down their throats and are made to feel stupid if they can’t “keep up” with their peers, I’m surprised the numbers aren’t higher.  And maybe in 15-20 years they will be much higher, once graduates of the Common Core get out of school.

And then there’s Math.  Math is one of nature’s miracles.  It is everywhere, all around us.  A fact which I am just now discovering, 20+ years after leaving school.   I hated math classes.  I hated the fact that getting the right answer wasn’t enough – you had to do the equation the “right” way.   What baloney!   My physicist friend shakes his head when we talk about these things.  Great discoveries in mathematics often come from people who think about it in very unconventional ways.   But in school there is always only one correct way to do anything.   Equations might as well be set in stone.

One time a few years ago my son told me a story.  In school it would have been called a “story problem”.  He said that if you  had 10 friends and they all gave you a birthday present every year that you lived, if you lived to be 90 you’d have 900 presents.   He stated this in a rather matter of fact way one morning as we were waiting to get on the elevator in our building.  He was 5 years old at the time and had never done a math problem in a workbook; didn’t know how to use a calculator and certainly had never “practiced” multiplication.    I asked him how he knew, and he launched into an explanation that I couldn’t follow.   But it made perfect sense to him, and I wasn’t about to dispute it.

This is discovering “math” and it is exactly the type of thing that is discouraged in schools and for which programs like the Common Core have no use.

It is such a shame that in our relentless quest for higher test scores we are losing what little joy was left in learning.   Reading has become just another painful task that must be mastered in order to get a good score on a piece of paper.  It contains no beauty or wonder.

Math is just a bunch of numbers on a page, often learned by rote and with no practical application or connection to life beyond the test.

We are creating a world where all kids learn to do is memorize already solved crossword puzzles.

Which gives us one more reason to support and advocate for unschooling.   The love of reading and math may depend upon it.

5 comments on “For the love of reading and math

  1. Laurie says:

    Yes, it is all about the sense of discovery. I remember when my 5yo “discovered” multiplication on the road, figuring out the number of wheels on an 18-wheeler by multiplying the rows of tires. Two years earlier he has “discovered” odd and even, when he told me excitedly, over the breakfast table, “Did you know that you can split some numbers but you can’t split others?” That was also the day that I introduced fractions to him. But I have to disagree with you about memorizing those multiplication tables. It was the only thing we ever asked them to memorize, and we made it fun, singing the tables in the car, adding multiplication to games, etc. We did this because memorizing the times tables makes algebra so much easier to understand. BTW, they LOVED algebra and started that in 3rd or 4th grade, as soon as they had mastered those times tables. It was about having a strong foundation, not about replacing discovery with memorization (heaven forbid).

    • Amy says:

      Hi Laurie,

      You are the master at making things fun (at least from what I’ve observed) and that is a key element. That said, I also think the personality of the child plays a role. My daughter LOVEd word games and spelling games and we had a blast with them; when I introduced the same “fun” things to my son, he would literally cover his ears and tell me to “Stop!”. Or just leave the room. But now he reads very well and enjoys it. I was never able to achieve an enthusiasm for games involving math, so my kids both learn it as they go along – usually in pursuit of an unrelated goal that requires calculations of some sort, whether fractions or multiplication or decimals… Either way, in the end if it is fun and not forced, or comes about organically in the process of living, it works.


  2. Steven Davis says:

    Math is so important and we don’t seem to have a good intentional way of sharing it with our kids. Many adults bad math experiences are the result of bad learning experiences, but they confuse their feelings about math with the amazing power of math.

    I’ve been looking at a book “Secrets of Mental Math” which makes arithmetic “fun” in that kids can do math a lot faster than adults in their heads… this is not sold as a “teach your kids math” book, but I think it is worth checking out.

  3. Great message. I want my kids to love reading and math, too. I want them to love reading because I adore it and find it very pleasurable, and I want them to love math because I’ve hated it most my life and want to love it, too. Maybe love is too strong of a word, but I want them to enjoy those two skills in their own way. That said, it’s strange because I’ve found both my kids really enjoying rather “schooly” things. My daughter asked what types of things kids in school did to study spelling and math and told her about flash cards and spelling tests. She has been asking for them for months now! I guess because she asks for them and we do them when they want to, they move away from being “schooly” into being fun. I just try to bring as many different resources and ways to learn reading and math skills into my kids life and they pick and choose what’s interesting to them. Also, my son does those same type of made up “story problems” all the time, too! He loves that type of mathamatical thinking.

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