Do Algebra and Unschooling go Together?

Algebra pic

So I was curious to know out from my friends three things. Firstly, who understands algebra and secondly do they use it in their work and thirdly do they think it really needs to be taught in schools?

My experience of algebra was one of extreme anxiety, shame and complete, I have no idea what you are talking about-ness. For me it was like some one saying ‘Fwalaffaaneeprofdikey?’ and then someone saying ‘Fwalaffaaneeprofdikey?’ again and then them saying ‘Fwalaffaaneeprofdikey?’ but only louder and expecting me to translate it. Until the whole room went silent and I couldn’t answer, it was embarrassing. I heard a fly buzz and the teacher shouted loudly at me because I had no idea what ‘Fwalaffaaneeprofdikey?’ meant. Ok he didn’t say that word but he might as well have done, as it was all the same to me.

So I am prejudice around algebra, it makes no sense to me but I am also clever enough to know that just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean that my kids won’t. They probably won’t actually but they might and it is the ‘might’ bit that I am interested in.

Then I think about it, out of all the friends I asked only one of them, I think, actually used it in his work, seventeen replied and out of the seventeen, five of them liked it. Did they have great teachers? Or were they wired that way? Can you be wired in a certain way? I think I am wired for art, drawing, acting, creativity and flying off on waves of fantasy and story telling. I don’t think I am wired for numbers, maths, spreadsheets, physics or algebra. But how about if my journey was different, how about this, if I was a trickle of water running down Education Mountain and my stream had found the sciences, instead of the arts, would I be different? Would I have confidence in those subjects I tend to run from?

So when I think of my kids as flowing streams, I question as to whether my blocks around things create blocks for them, I hope not. I am open around alegbra and all things I don’t grasp, I will strew things their way and I believe that if they find a connection with it they will fly with it by themselves. I really think that when a spark ignites them and they are in flow the learning takes off without me. But I question, what if there was some really great teacher here to help them learn algebra? To sit with them and make the numbers, letters and symbols turn in to magic things that they can hold on to and love, instead of something that seems a bit of a chore. But I am following them and what I see is not what I expected, they do love maths, they don’t do it often but when the do it, they treat it as a game. Where as I treated it as a pain in the arse.

In truth, it seems that not many people use algebra in reality. My scripted self really struggles to say this, but I will say it anyway, even if they learn it, it is most likely that they will never use it.

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About the Author

Lehla is an illustrator and an author of books, she has written for The Guardian. She trained as an actress at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She wrote The South African Illustrated Cookbook, The Lovely Book for Wonderful Women and she illustrated a kid’s book by M.J. Amani called ‘Excuse Me, I’m Trying to Read’ and also ‘I am Me, You, Us and We’ by Caroline Trowbridge. Above all she is a mother to three fast growing kids, she juggles her time between them and working on new books and projects. She has recently co authored with Anthony ‘Jump’, Fall, Fly – from schooling, to homeschooling, to unschooling’ Her art work can be seen at

7 Enlightened Replies

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  1. My old man made toilet rolls and I ended up a painter and a wedding planner. You’re right about “when the spark ignites” but you need to make sure that there are enough occasions for those sparks to happen, and when they do, that you, and your sorrow dings and ambient aren’t a big bucket of spark dampening water.

  2. Ben Singleton says:

    Sorrow dings = surroundings Autocorrect

  3. Yes, you are right Ben. I quite like ‘sorrow dings’ by the way!

  4. Ben says:

    Ok, I’m going to play the Devils advocate here, only because I love you and because you too found Sorrow Dings better than surroundings.

    So, some assumptions:

    1) Now, either you are doing one of two things. Either you’re writing pleasant little snippets that are there to entertain, or you’re doing something that reflects on more serious choices in your, and your families lives. I’m assuming the second.

    2) And secondly let’s assume “algebra” really equates as “advanced Mathematics”. I personally wasn’t too hot at maths, but I’m guessing you can’t go on teaching kids multiply, divide, subtract etc. without coming to a more complex level. That’s what (I’m supposing algebra is).

    So if that’s the case, it’s a pretty important branch of study for a number of possible directions (avoiding the word “career” here) such as rocket scientist, the new Amelia Earhart, pilot, the biologist who discovers how to stop food going bad ,and so on…

    3) Thirdly, I’m assuming you had a problem with this type of advanced mathematics, while being taught in the conventional UK 1980’s educational meat factory. I did too. I know exactly what you mean about crazy language being spoken that you’re not party to, and about a spark being lit….

    BUT. But are you going to pass on that very personal choice / problem of yours to three children? Are you going to say “algebra? Who cares about that! Never understood why they taught that stuff. You don’t need that in your lives, kids! Look I did extensive research of at least seventeen people and they all told me they don’t use algebra at all! Yes, there’ all my friends, and are probably artists / home teachers / alternative thinkers like me – and that’s what you want to be, don’t you?….”

    So what I’m asking (sarcasm apart) is what do you do in your situation, when, intelligently, and lovingly, you realize that you cannot yourself give what your home schooled kids need? I know you’re going to instinctively say I’ll give them access to the information and encourage them to find out about it / help them Google what they need and so on – but you yourself are addressing the real problem in your post – which I believe is this: As I, Lehla, am such a strong educative influence in the lives on my children, and as I am not a whole knowledge bank of information, and as I do not have a studied and tested curriculum (for good or bad), or special experience in more advanced areas, how am I going to not dampen the spark, not misdirect the stream, not be trampling flowerbuds instead of weeds…?

  5. I love that you question me, as that means I have to question myself.
    Your points are all valid. They are points that we think about, a lot. And maybe when we question what we are doing, we become better at it, so am going to start by saying, thanks for prodding me.

    Point 1, I am glad you find my posts entertaining. Yes but assume the second.

    Point 2 and 3. I think with maths and with advanced maths if children fly at it, they fly. If they love it, they will find a way ie The Khan Academy run with it. I am aware that I don’t want to pass on my personal maths biased to them. No, I think that algebra seems exciting (and when I drew it in that illustration I wished I had known what it meant) I don’t dis anything in front of them because, as I said I am me and not them. Who am I to curb their interests by dissing algebra? But yes, that I even hold the thought that they may never use it in their working lives, maybe that is enough to say I am biasing them.

    I am very aware that I am not the whole knowledge and bank of their information, I am a part of their learning environment and I pass things their way that they either run with or don’t. But to say that only I can educate them 100% by myself would be foolish.

    Also there is a shift in this way of learning that is different from school learning, it is a whole life approach so whilst they may or may not learn algebra, they also learn a myriad of things that seem to be nothing to do with education and subjects learnt at a desk. And if we have the next Amelia Earhart in the house I have faith that she will find her way to that plane, and to what ever she needs to know, as she would have been driven by her inner desire which would be passion to be a female pilot.

    But then it begs the question, as you rightly point out when do you know and how do you know how to catch that spark? This is something we question a lot.

    Then I have a question for you, aren’t we all slightly biased as to how we show up around out kids? Isn’t that the way we have been taught, subconsciously. My Dad is a painter who also writes, I paint, illustrate and write. However my sister has a more academic and scientific approach to her life, as does my Mum in a way.

    And yes you have a good point a lot of my friends are arty types this is true, however when I looked at this John Bennet’s view on higher maths his stats for America were pretty clear, not many people according to him actually use higher maths.

    And one more thing, I also think this, if you zoom out and look at learning from a deeper perspective I often asked myself these questions, ‘what is education anyway?’ and ‘how do we as parents, ever know when we are doing the right thing? Whether they are in school or not?’And yes thank you once again for questioning me about what we are doing and our ‘sorrow dings.’

  6. Anne-Marie says:

    Hi Lehla,

    Anne-Marie Killer here…from the Montagu days, remember?

    Maybe you want to watch this TEDx talk? (Math is forever):

    Maybe this will motivate/inspire a little?

    Kind regards to all of you

  7. Hi Anne-Marie,

    It is a lovely Ted Talk, he is very watchable and he is right, maths is always there and will be forever. Thanks for sharing. Lovely to hear from you!