January 31, 2014

Mathophobia: Who Needs Algebra Anyway?

Math is the great enigma of homeschool parents.  When first deciding to home educate many parents are faced with the question "what about the difficult subjects, like advanced math?"  and it can and often does send a pang of panic and disturb the foundation of confidence.   Suddenly we recall long strings of letters and numbers and have vague recollection of theorem terminology.  We realize we don't remember it all that well and spin ourselves into a panic wondering how we can ever teach our children these complicated logarithms if we don't remember how to do it?

Never-mind the irony of course, that evidently our school experience didn't do such a good job of solidifying that for us so that's apparently not the answer!  But wait, there are levels of irony here... you see we miss the first layer of irony due to the lack of ability to think sequentially and see the pattern.  If we were, we'd not be in a panic in the first place, because (A) we'd see the irony right off and (B) we'd understand that it's not about memorizing theorem anyway.  A + B = relax!  :)

So to the new-to-homeschool parent comes the question, whether from a critical relative or that nagging
voice within.... and then, a strange thing happens... out of the mouths of more experienced homeschoolers and homeschool bloggers comes the answer often posed as a new question (cue halleluiah choir) why do we even need algebra?   Aha! Therein lie the rub eh?  We don't need to do what school does because we are smart homeschoolers now that are enlightened with the knowledge that math is not as necessary to life as we were fallaciously lead to believe by our over-zealous 8th grade teacher. 

Well that's a nice blanket of comfort for the numerically challenged parent isn't it?

Here's the thing of it though - I don't agree with that at all.  We do need math.  The problem is that school does not typically provide young minds with a solid comprehension of mathematics so it becomes dreadful and scary to so many of us and it does not have to be.   Math is really much less complicated that it's presented to be, and can be very easily recognized along the natural curve of learning because math IS weaved naturally into the organic fabric of living.  You see, it's just a language - but it is a very important language.

Our entire existence and everything that is can be broken down mathematically.  There is something wonderful and intensely spiritual about that.  It means that existence is  perfect, because mathematics is a way of finding that perfection.  Why would we want to deny ourselves the ability to find perfection in everything we experience?  

The question remains however, and I can sense it buzzing around in many minds now... 

"But seriously!  We can see the usefulness of basic arithmetic, but honestly, when will they use algebra? I mean, we can reasonably stop after the times table, and let it be!"

When will they use algebra?  The answer is, All the time!  They will ALWAYS use it or at least should be using it and moreover we should use it too! We don't, but it would be so beneficial if we did!

Algebra is a way of thinking, it's not about the numbers, but about the logic and sequence and break down of information to arrive at a solid conclusion.   It's not about memorizing what X times Y squared equals.   X and Y represent the unknown variable.   Algebraic mathematics helps teach us how to find those variable and work them into the rest of the equation to find a definite solution. 

Learning algebra helps build the skill of critical, logical thinking and sequential, organized reasoning.  It is practice in recognizing a pattern and following it to an outcome that is definite.  We can apply this to all aspects of our lives. Most of the time numbers are not directly involved, but this way of using our mind is - almost always utilized, or rather can be if we allow ourselves to embrace and learn it.

Math is unforgiving.  It's right  or wrong. Period.  This is very important to understanding fact vs. loaded opinion, which is a crucial skill in sorting through the monumental heaps of artificial information that human beings have to trudge through.  Mathematical understanding is critical reasoning and that is a means to intellectual and therefore personal freedom.  

So you see, we may never ever actually use this formula literally : X = (A) x 25 squared + 42; but we will ALWAYS be able to use the skill that we aquired in learning to find X.     X represents the great unkown variable in all areas of life and to know how to find X is to know how to find perfection, freedom and demand that information makes sense.

Let the langauge of mathmatics be part of your curve.  Do not fear it, embrace it, relearn it if you have to and explore it together, with your children!  You do not have to impart it on to them like a grand wizard - that is not what independent learning is all about and it's fake anyway.

Learn together.  explore together, appreciate together!


  1. Very well put! So often people seem to focus on the mechanics of math and miss the underlying thinking involved which means they miss the real world application potential. I tried to explain something similar in a blog post earlier last year but I think you've captured the essence much better.

    1. Thanks Kevin, glad you liked the post. I was not a big fan of math in school. It was presented in such a sterile, ineffective way that I couldn't draw any cognitive connection to my life. It wasn't until my adulthood that I began to realize the usefulness of mathematical comprehension and not until I began to home educate that I fully grasped the connection between math concepts and reasonable thinking. :) It seems a shame not to share that finding and I hope more folks begin to appreciate the honest and pure beauty of this remarkably perfect language!

    2. I think the same reasoning applies to logic as well (which I teach). It's a struggle to get students to see the value in the more symbolic areas of logic.


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