What happens when you don’t teach math

I started unschooling when my younger son was 5 years old. I did not teach him math or reading. This is because my friend who is a teacher in New York City public schools, told me that everyone in the school system knows that you don’t have to teach most kids to read — they teach themselves. You only need to teach socially or economically disadvantaged kids how to read.

I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. So I didn’t teach my son to read. And at some point, I realized he learned to read in order to play video games. I wasn’t surprised, because around that time MIT was showing that even kids who don’t have literate parents can teach themselves to read.

I also did not teach my son math. I read studies that said that kids do not need to formally learn math until 7th grade. This is because basic arithmetic is something people learn like they learn language. And other math skills kids can pick up much faster if you just wait.

So I waited. But now he’s 13 years old, and a few weeks ago, when I thought he would be going to boarding school, he said, “Mom, I have to learn math.”

So, I taught him math. We started at the beginning so we didn’t miss anything. He learned 1st grade through 4th grade in one day. Mostly he was missing the words for concepts he already understood, like “circle graphs.”

The next day we learned 5th grade and 6th grade. Often I would say, “How did you learn that?” And he’d say, “From video games.”

He learned the rule for when you round up from Minecraft because when you mine for gems you only need three to get to five.

He learned penta- is 5 and hex- is 6 because in League of Legends the game calls it a pentakill, hexakill, etc.

He got to 7th grade math in three days. Easily. I have dyscalculia and I was nearly unable to teach him. So he did it himself toward the end.

I’m not saying he can go to Math Olympiad, but he did get through the common core in three days. So surely he did not need a bunch of math earlier than 7th grade unless he was expecting to be a math god.

I was shocked by how many math concepts he had to learn during his gazillion hours of video-game playing. I don’t think that proves video games are educational so much as it proves that kids discover basic math over the course of a normal problem-solving childhood. You don’t have to teach it.


26 replies
  1. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I can totally understand the link between video games and learning math. When i was kid, bowling did something similar for me (when you had to hand score – in the olden days).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s really interesting. When I look at homeschooling blogs that are focused on curriculum tips, people always point out how stuff like bowling and cooking and map reading are math. But then after noticing all that stuff people still feel like they have to teach math before 7th grade. Me, too. I worried. I wish I hadn’t. That’s on my list of things I worried about but didn’t need to.


  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Similarly, my son learned to read from game chats. He learns most on his own. He is about 8th-grade-age now and he is worried about math. So I bought a book with all the middle school math and another book on refresher math(for the arithmetic) and we are going through math very quickly. I wanted to wait to formally teach any math based on the Sudbury math teacher who stated that 12 years of school math could be taught in eight weeks – or something like that. It really goes by quickly as they have a certain “readiness” where I don’t have to over explain things. Video games helped with place value, money, addition, subtraction, and a whole bunch of other concepts I hear him blurt out while he is on his chat.

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    The math up through grade seven is remarkably simple and repetitive. I think it has to be repeated so much, and take so many years (like a lot of what happens in school) because it is delivered too early for the lowest common denominator in the classroom.

    Math starts to get more interesting with algebra. But in school they usually won’t let kids do that until the rest of their age peers are ready for it.

    If your homeschooled kid is going to go back to school, don’t forget that in addition to understanding there’s also computational fluency. Math classes aren’t graded on how well the kid understands a concept, but on whether the kid can put the right answer down on a test.

    It’s possible to verify comprehension of the 1st-7th grade curriculum in a few days, but it’s unlikely the kid has sufficient computational fluency to demonstrate that understanding to a non-present third party.

    You have good points about the reading too. Schoolkids need to read in first or second grade mostly because how else would you do school? Kids who don’t read much at seven will probably pick it up fine in a couple of years if left to their own devices, but schools need to hurry them up because it interferes with their system.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You’re so right about reading being necessary for the teachers but not the kids. The teachers can make kids much more sedentary and independent if the kids can read.

      I remember when my son was in a really terrible school — like bottom 10% in the country — and each day he did coloring. Day after day after day. It was because the teacher wanted to do worksheets so she could get a break (who wouldn’t want a break? I get it) and the kids couldn’t read or write, so she had to just give them coloring.

      Even today my son thinks of coloring as punishment.


    • Aurora Moore
      Aurora Moore says:

      None of this is true in places that have actually implemented the Core. In those places kids are doing advanced conceptual math in middle school. Massachusetts has pretty incredible public schools, for example.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        You make me laugh. Where do you think Boston is? Advanced conceptual math my Aunt Fanny!

        For one, the “common core” actually downgraded Massachusetts standards. For two, Algebra is still the standard class offered in Grade 9 in Massachusetts. Some schools are offering Geometry in 9th grade, and calling that advanced.

        The elementary and middle school math curriculum in MA public schools is probably better than in other states, but it’s still terrible, time-wasting, and repetitive. Taking eight years of daily classes just to get to Algebra is scheduled failure. The only thing that’s changed in the last forty years is more jargon.

        One of the reasons my son moved to private school this year is his private school lets him take precalculus in 9th grade and his public school wouldn’t. Why should he keep waiting indefinitely for the slowest kid in the grade?

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I don’t know if it’s just us, but my daughter’s middle school math class is highly collaborate and experiential. They work in groups, socialize, and collaborate to solve problems together…quite different from my day. It’s also extremely simple for her to do, so she enjoys the groups.

    This was a note from the other day for math :

    “Learning Target:

    I can represent and compare positive rational numbers. I know I’m on target when I can express a number as a fraction, decimal, and percent and I can write those numbers in order from least to greatest. ”

    I can’t imagine 7th being much more difficult than this… it’s like they are still getting everyone to the same level or something.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I put my son in AP Physics in the local high school, and everything was in groups. This only lasted a month, and then we moved. But I was really surprised.

      First, I was surprised that everything is in groups. But then I was surprised how good it was for my son’s social skills. So I don’t think a neurotypical kid would necessarily benefit (as you show in your comment about your daughter’s class) but my son really likes physics so he thought it was fun to do it with other kids. The whole experience was super interesting to him — how the kids did the assignments, how they chose roles in the group, it was a huge, unexpected treat.

      To be clear, my son was also amazed at how much time teachers waste in school and how much more efficient it is to be self-paced. But I have to admit that the physics classroom was the biggest reason I was sad to leave Swarthmore.


      • Leonie
        Leonie says:

        HS Physics in groups because pretty much all college level science is in groups.

        Chem labs and bio labs are in groups. If you decide to go to graduate school, you work within a lab run by a professor in their research group. Sure, there’s always some experiments you can run alone but it’s always in the context of working with the lab research group.

  5. Minami
    Minami says:

    “You only need to teach socially or economically disadvantaged kids how to read.” I am so glad you said this, because up until now, you saying you don’t need to teach kids how to read – without having that caveat – felt misleading. Granted, I’m probably biased, because I was a socially and economically disadvantaged kid. Learning how to read well was the only way to learn how to navigate life, when my parents couldn’t teach me to. I suspect this is true for many from similar backgrounds.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I have been thinking more and more that school should be for disadvantaged kids. It should be the great equalizer. And middle-class parents should have to keep their kids at home. I’m convinced that if we put all the public school money to kids living in poverty then we could create class mobility in this country. But lower middle class people would go ballistic. Because there would be no one below them. I think at our core we want poor people in this country, or else we’d stop diverting so many public resources to other people.

      It’s good to put really controversial stuff like this in the comments. So I can sit with it a bit :)


    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      It isn’t that disadvantaged children need to read and those who aren’t disadvantaged don’t need to read. It is that children will naturally learn to read if the environment provides what is needed for development. Disadvantaged children may not have the natural development that leads to reading in the effortless way.

      When I was seeing children miraculously learning to read out of thin air (90s), talking to children, telling stories, playing, having books in the home with people who read them all contributed to reading readiness. These days with new lifestyles, I don’t know how that would look or what parents do with their children, but reading is like all learning. Disadvantaged kids don’t learn as readily. It isn’t about not having money. It is about the development that occurs when the person has basic needs met and stimulation.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        One of the things that doesn’t stop perplexing me is the distinction between correlation and causation. Yesterday my son was staring at his (new) phone, and I asked what he was doing. He was criticizing an online article talking about how, because greater screen time and poorer academic performance are loosely correlated, parents should limit screen time of their children. We both found it humorous that he was using his screen to develop his critical thinking skills by inquiring into whether an article criticizing screen time actually had a sound scientific basis. (It didn’t).

        I don’t limit screen time as such. My son, 14, is generally too busy to spend much time playing video games or watching silly things. My daughter, 7, isn’t. He’s upstairs practicing viola and my daughter is in the front room alternating playing some game that makes beeping noises for some reason with watching pop music videos.

        There’s a natural limiting function to screen time: it’s called ‘being too busy.’ If my daughter isn’t too busy with other things, why should I say she must entertain herself in some particular fashion rather than another? Do I need to invent some palaver about how she’s improving her calculation and predictive skills and exploring her musical tastes?

        My daughter also doesn’t read much. It’s not important to her. She writes fine (better handwriting than my son had at her age), but hates the books that she has the skills to read because they’re childish. She doesn’t use screens any more than my son did at her age, and he read more avidly at an earlier age. I learned to read at three, probably because there wasn’t much else to do.

        I am certain that, left to her own devices (heh) she would learn to read fluently all by herself just fine. Because schools have a timetable, however, I am going to have to help her along a bit. It’s a drag for kids to be “behind” in third grade. I think the biggest help I can give her is finding books she is capable of reading that she is actually interested in, because right now she’s not seeing the overlap.

        Probably the main literacy activity she engages in with me right now is writing messages back and forth in Minecraft. Which she does just fine.

        I think the hardest thing about sending my kids to a posh school is encountering parents who broadcast the virtues of a television-free childhood when I dress my daughter as a cartoon character (Starfire) for Halloween, and who ask in all sincerity whether they should be worried about the addictive dangers of video games.

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          Bostonian, this – ” Yesterday my son was staring at his (new) phone, and I asked what he was doing. He was criticizing an online article talking about how, because greater screen time and poorer academic performance are loosely correlated, parents should limit screen time of their children. We both found it humorous that he was using his screen to develop his critical thinking skills by inquiring into whether an article criticizing screen time actually had a sound scientific basis.” – from the first paragraph of your comment made me think about academic performance and screen time. It made me think about what I think many people may think of academic performance. And that is academic performance being defined as digesting, memorizing, and repeating back to the teacher that which is taught by means of a curriculum. Critical thinking skills, on the other hand, may or may not be acquired in an academic setting. There are many ways to solve a problem or arrive at a conclusion. What might be happening here when someone is complaining about someone else’s too much screen time is the complaint that screen time is taking away time from the teacher’s idea of what is the best method of learning (lecture, book, etc.).

  6. MMJ
    MMJ says:

    I believe it from my own experience. I’m not a gamer, but a 45+ year old plus corporate manager (who has studied finance and tax in the past, which don’t require calculus-level math) and when I went back to Khan Academy, only out of personal interest, to renew pre-calc/calc and get a basis for understanding number theory and cryptography (which I find personally interesting) I moved through things I’d taken in high school and college FAST. Like, these concepts became common sense and made sense. So why do we take SO long to teach math in school? Why is everything dragged out ad nauseum when it should be a faster track? No need to answer, I think we all know that in general it is dragged out to keep kids busy for the school day (the way that work is dragged out to fill 40 hours in the workplace).

  7. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    My daughter was too late to join preschool. She wants to read so bad and tries her darnest.

    When I watch her I remember Penelope and another reader of this blog who sent me books and clothes for my baby when she was born. It is surreal to feel that connected to the world. And after reading and processing the post about asking for help, I realized I never asked for help but people sent it my way because they wanted to. Makes my heart swell and pour out with gratitude.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “So I waited. But now he’s 13 years old, and a few weeks ago, when I thought he would go to boarding school, he said, “Mom, I have to learn math.”
    He knows how to ask for help. He’s got a good role model. And that makes you a good parent (which I always knew).

  9. Akshay Shambharkar
    Akshay Shambharkar says:

    Video Games can make your mind more sharp as the user thinks to complete of perform a particular task and tries to do it in a more feasible way. That’s how the mathematics is as well because it presents us with a particular problem and we can solve it in many different ways.

  10. anon
    anon says:

    As a good critical thinker who has always felt as out of place as the marathon runner recently featured in NY times for being out of the ordinary in her training and I think body style, I feel constantly comforted by these blogs about unconventional lives that end up successful.

    Right now I know I am doing what is best for me by not working and doing professional work for free remotely while I change careers and learn slowly. But it has been difficult for my dignity that I don’t work.

    All the stories about not being neurotypical help me be more like how I was when I was little. I was different but proud of it. The psychiatric community came down really hard on me however, slapped diagnoses and hospitalizations on me, and my conforming mother made me feel nervous about being me.

    I still wish I had a normal job, but I don’t know if I can handle one. Articles about nonstandard lives help me feel a little less alone for blazing my own lonely trail.

    Thank you for being so honest and not being afraid to be yourself.

  11. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    So, are we all agreed?

    Send subliterate kids to KIPP academy.

    Have middle-class kids educated by their mothers and video games.

    Now my line is that at age 13 kids leave home and start apprenticeships and eevil corporations pay for their education.

    Only ruling-class kids and future identity-politics activists go to high school and college.

    No more college debt.

  12. Mary Suma
    Mary Suma says:

    My first visit to your blog. It is fabulous.

    I did want to mention I agree with you partially about reading. Someone told me once if a kid lives in a closet for 5 years, they would come out reading. I agree for most kids.

    But I totally disagree with your friend who said, “You only need to teach socially or economically disadvantaged kids how to read.” That is really not true.

    70-80% of ALL (rich or poor) people with poor reading skills, are likely dyslexic. One in five students, or 15-20% of the population, has a language based learning disability. Dyslexia is the most common of the language based learning disabilities. Nearly the same percentage of males and females have dyslexia.

    Learning to read is a brain function. It is how you hear (or don’t hear the sounds). I agree disadvantaged children are not exposed to as much as others, but in no way does that cause reading issues.

    • RM
      RM says:

      This times 1000. I was an early reader who is now a mother to more than one dyslexic child. Our school uses Spalding, an Orton-Gillingham phonics program. My son is thriving there!

    • Mo
      Mo says:

      I can’t speak for all disadvantaged kids but I grew up dirt poor in the Bronx, NY and taught myself to read when I was 4 years old. I was a voracious reader and my dad and I would walk to the library together a lot as it was free and we didn’t have money to blow on stuff. So the library was a huge place for me and I wolfed down anything I could. By 11 I was reading Stephen King and at 15 I was reading Les Miserables. My reading level was second year college when I was 12. My sister is 2.5 years older than me and has always hated reading. I read her assigned summer books and she didn’t! LOL Now there’s this: I’m also melancholic and she’s sanguine. I’m soft and fluffy and she’s athletic and smaller boned. We were both disadvantaged but turned out very different. I am horrid with math. I think my math is still a 3rd grade level. I learn math and forget it. I passed remedial algebra in college and promptly forgot it all.

      I’m trying to navigate homeschooling math with my child who is not a reader (*cries*) and has problems staying focused and motivated. Reading is pretty much grade level but math, oh math, my nemesis is a problem.

      We signed up with Mathnasium but now the people there just say “she’s years behind” and kind of look at me like I’m some kind of horrible person. We’d learned a lot of the math though and she was doing fairly well but then took off winter vacation (I flip summer vacation for winter and school through summer) so she forgot a lot of it. We also do Elephant Learning and in 3 days she’s already improved according to them a span of 5 months of math. Hmm.

  13. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I have to tell you, that your son is a really smart guy. Not everyone is so self-motivated to learn by himself. Some kids really need support from parents when learning new things. But it’s so good you share your personal experience and this approach which are perfectly fit to your family.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s so nice to hear that my approach looks like it fits the kids. I’ve had to work hard on that. I wanted everyone to read what I like, and talk about what I like, and start companies. I thought that’s what we’d do because how could my kids not like that stuff too? I had a lot of adjusting to do to get to where we are.


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