Will Unschoolers Learn Their Times Tables?
Unschooled children learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it.
This is confronting for a lot of people.
They say to me “but there are certain things children need to know!”
I’m sure there are. The thing is, there is no universal set of knowledge that is necessary for all of us. We all have different lives and will need different skills at different times. We can’t possibly predict what will be useful for each child in the future.
What we do know is that children are perfectly capable of learning and they will learn everything they need to know, when it becomes meaningful and relevant.
This lack of control scares people. They do not trust that children will learn the things that seem vitally important to them. They especially don’t think children will be motivated to learn things that were made to seem tedious and painful to them at school.
But when there is no distinction between play and learning, when there is no force and coercion, when there are no ‘have to’s’, children do learn the things that they need to know. Yes, even things that you may have had to be forced to do at school.
For example, my 8-year-old has spent the past weekend learning the times tables. Something that I have been told they would never choose to do. People can not imagine a child voluntarily wanting to learn maths because they never got the chance to be interested in it themselves. They were forced before an interest even arose. Children at school are made to practice every day, whether they’re interested or not, whether they’re ready for the information or not. Consequently, most people end up hating maths. So how did this come about?
The girls have been listening to the audiobook of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (which I highly recommend, by the way, Kate Winslett reading it is fantastic! We listen on audible: here).
Miss 8 came to me one evening…
“Mum, I want to learn more times tables. Can you help me?”
“Sure. Where did you hear about times tables?”
“When we were listening to Matilda. They were doing times tables and she already knew them all.”
“Oh yeah, how would you like me to help?”
“I want you to ask me them and I will work them out, and you tell me if they’re right.”
“Actually, I’ll write them all down, because then I can always remember them.”
I then suggested that she use a grid to write them down because then she wouldn’t have to write as much and could find them all easily whenever she looked them up. I explained how that worked and she loved the idea and decided to do it that way.
She used an abacus to help her with some of the answers.
At this point she realised there was a pattern and that she could copy the answers horizontally and vertically. She also figured out that she didn’t have to start at the beginning to work out each sum, she could just count on from the last answer.
Miss 6, seeing her sister working on multiplication, decided she wanted to do some maths too. She said “I don’t think I’m ready for all the times tables, but can you write me some plusses?”. I love how they know what they are ready for and don’t feel pressured to keep up with others.
The next morning both girls were back to it.
And so, both kids spent the weekend finding joy in maths. Because children don’t need force to learn. They don’t need rewards and praise. They don’t need rules and timelines. They just need freedom.
They will learn what they need to know, when it is relevant.
Bizarrely, sometimes people still ask ‘But what about if something never becomes relevant? How will they learn it?’ Surely the question is, if something is never relevant, meaningful, or necessary to a person then why on earth do you believe they should be forced to learn it?
Our schooling has led us to believe that we do not know what is best for us, only teachers do. That it is perfectly acceptable to dictate to another person what they should find important. That only official ‘educators’ can determine what is necessary for us to learn. Even if we don’t want to, even if it is not useful to us, even if we are not ready to learn it, even if we don’t agree. How disempowering.
I don’t know about you, but I’m taking back my power. I will use my mind how I want to, and so will my children. In fact, despite the pressure, I never did memorise my times tables at school. They weren’t meaningful to me at the time. And would you look at that, I’m still a functioning human being.
So will unschoolers learn their times tables? Maybe, maybe not. But they will learn what matters. Including that they have the right to decide on their own path.
This post is part of a series of posts documenting our day-to-day life as an unschooling family. Sometimes it’s hard to picture what unschooling looks like, so here I hope to provide a little window into the kid’s life and learning. This is just an example of what unschooling can look like, but it’s very different for each family. It’s not designed to be read as an ‘activity idea’ that you can set up for your child, but an account of four inspired young people who have the freedom to learn how and what they desire.
I have thought about homeschooling… but I worry about meeting their needs as they get to highschool age and doing qualifications. I’m not confident at all. Thanks for sharing
This is funny, to read your article today. In fact, my two unschooled girls are so totally in maths at the moment. One evening my 9 years old grapped an arithmetics game book out of the bookshelf and started to do some games by her own. I joined her to say good night, but instead of going to sleep, we both did about two hours of math games in her bed. Our 8 years old does the same. Especially in the evenings, they are so enthousiastic to do arithmetics.
They hated maths when they used to go to school. Now, that they’re unschooled, since two years, they say LOVING it. And this is just because they turned it into a game and because they decided if, when and how to do it.
yes! I love this! My two older children are traditionally schooled (is that the term for regular school?) and I find myself defending their readiness/interest often. I am so grateful that so far it has worked out-my miss 9 doesnt care for reading books, she loves to be read to and that is enough for me to know she LOVES books-Im glad her teachers leave her alone about it…and 6th grade is all about whatever she wants to explore. It is still school but they support an open mindedness that follows the interests of the child. I learn so much from you and how to support my children. I wish I could be more patient with my 3 year old, but Im still learning myself ❤️
When my son was removed from the school system at the age of seven (he’s 22 now), and the subject of learning the times tables arose, we decided we would pay attention to that when it become obvious that he needed to know them. It never happened. After nine years, he went back into the formal education system to obtain a paper qualification and had to take a literacy and a numeracy test to qualify for inclusion in the relevant course. He scored 100% in both tests, including answering multiplication questions correctly. There was no question in the numeracy test that asked him if he knew the times tables. He knows how to multiply and divide perfectly – that came about through practical usage – so it’s clear to me that learning the times tables is not as necessary as many people believe it is.
I love this! It is so inspiring! Thank you for sharing.
This was not true with my kids. My oldest has now graduated our homeschool and she never liked math and never wanted to do it. I filled my kids’ lives with fun ways to play with math and have given them so many books full of tricks and help but my oldest daughter has always been the sort of person to only want to do things she instantly was good at and math was not that, and she developed more and more reluctance about doing it at all. She is now stuck, as she would really like to go into a science career but she is so far behind in the math she’d need for college and feels absolutely overwhelmed and depressed by it. She doesn’t even know the basics and gets panic attacks about doing math at all now. She has decided not to go to college and at all, which breaks my heart since she’s so smart and would have loved to go into a scientific career.
My next oldest is graduating soon and she used to love to play with math but the advanced math is so far above her now. There really isn’t a natural way that subjects like calculus and trigonometry work into life for most of us. She’s not choosing college either, and in her case I think it’s fine as her preferred careers are more creative anyway. I think she will do fine without having ever learned some of the things she’d have been forced to learn in school.
My third oldest child is now “falling behind” in math (we are required by law to test annually) and I am looking for some sort of fun curriculum for her, as my oldest child has told me she regrets being unschooled and perhaps homeschooled at all and she is pressuring me to do things differently with the younger kids. The youngest ones are all very good at math for their ages now, but their siblings were at their age too.
All of it breaks my heart, as I worked so hard to give my girls what I thought was the perfect home learning environment and freedom. I don’t know what the answer is, and I keep trying to figure out what to do for my younger girls. My oldest daughter is pressuring me to do more “school” with her younger siblings and make them do things they don’t want to do instead of letting them quit things the way I did with her and the older girls. She says she wants to protect them from ending up like her. 🙁
This is the inherent risk in taking advice from a mom whose kids are still young. I believed all this stuff when my kids were young too, with all my heart. I would really like to find a brutally honest unschooling family blog where the kids have grown up and are out in the world to give advice to those of us who are further in our parenting path and struggling.
That must be really hard for both her and you ♥ It sounds like you feel like the blame is on you.
I want to support you and I don’t want to dismiss your feelings. I don’t believe it is your fault for not forcing maths though. Many many people have maths forced upon them and it doesn’t lead to being proficient in advanced maths. Most people do not remember at all what they learned in school. What would it have achieved for you to have forced it? Likely disconnection and a greater dislike for maths.
I wonder what is going on for her now that she feels disempowered and incapable? Why does she feel that the fault is with you instead of being responsible for her own learning and choices now? Could you talk to her about that? You say she never liked math and never wanted to do it. Maybe she is feeling regret about her own decisions and it’s easier to blame you for it and give up instead of tackling the hard work of learning it all now? There is no expiry date on learning and just like if I wanted to learn maths now, I could, no prior knowledge needed. You can empathise with her but you don’t necessarily need to agree with the conclusions she has come to and accept blame ♥
As for unschooling blogs with grown unschoolers. Here are a couple I know of:
This is also research on how unschoolers ‘turn out’:
I’m a freshman at my public school (I wish I could do unschooling and I really love math, taking precalc as a freshman but I am currently teaching myself calculus via Khan Academy) and I just wanted to let you know about a project I did in eighth grade that made school a tad more bearable. I wish they did this every year… It is called genius hour. You have to come up with a goal for the end of the year, it could be anything from a charity project to writing a novel or a song, redesigning a house, or in my case inventing something. You were given 2 hours every friday to work on it in English, and I loved it. I invented a device called the “lifeline” that connects to your phone via a wire that you wear on your wrist that locks when you drop your phone, or you can connect the phone to the bracelet like an apple watch. The case is made of a plastic bag (I don’t have access to many materials, I wanted to 3D print parts but couldn’t) so it works for anything. One girl who is known to read 4 books per day minimum wrote a 100 pages of a dystopian novel that was great and avoided common tropes. An artistic boy redesigned his parents beach house with everything from fixing the screen porch to retiling the shower floors with a mosaic he created. A few years back a boy created a whole hydroponics garden in a back closet at the school. I was in grow club so I got to help. I just wanted to let you know that schools are slowly changing, even if it is one sloths-paced step at a time.
I wish my school did that.
I am very intrigued by what you said about you not memorizing your times tables in school. Do you mean that you still don’t have them memorized or that just never memorized them in school? I am genuinely curious how someone could function without knowing them. Do you just pull out a calculator every time? Count on your fingers? I mean I use it all the time to figure out how much things will cost, how many cookies each person gets, playing Pokémon, you name it. I agree it doesn’t need to be forced and for the very reasons I mentioned, most will probably want to learn it.
No I still don’t have them memorised. I just count in my head I guess but it doesn’t seem to come up that often.