An Unschooler does "Word Problems"

October 2, 2003
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Yesterday, my nine year old son had a friend over for the day. He lives a bit far away and I had to pick him up somewhat early in the morning. Since I know that this family is "school at home" in style, I offered to "do" some of the child's schoolwork with him at our house so that she'd feel comfortable letting him come for the day midweek like that.

She gave me one sheet of math word problems. :) She knew that play was much higher on the list for these boys than lots of books. I was grateful.

But we did sit down after lunch to tackle those word problems.

Here's where it got interesting. This little boy (8 yo) began working these problems (triple digit subtraction that required borrowing) without much need for help. My son (who had already declared that he wasn't going to stop his day for "school") joined us at the table and looked at the math sheet. Then he got interested. I pulled out a piece of paper and told him he was free to do the same problems if he wanted to.

So he wrote down the first problem... wrote three of the numbers backwards, he put a line between the two numbers being subtracted (instead of one line under them both) and never did any borrowing...

and got the right answer.

He did the next two problems almost entirely in his head (one of them involved subtracting the same number 7 times (what an idiotic problem! Can you imagine a page of problems like that? Isn't that what a calculator or the power of division is for?).

The funny thing was that at one point, the other little boy finished a problem really quickly while I was momentarily out of the room. My son came dejectedly to me saying he wasn't getting it. I followed them back to the papers and as it turned out, the first boy didn't understand the problem... had not finished it at all. In the meantime, my son had gotten most of the way through it and mostly correctly. He didn't know there would be anything left over at the end. That was it!

My son used all kinds of strategies for subtracting I had never taught him:


Well, mom, first you take 30 from 100 and get 70. Then you add 10 and get 80 then subtract 4 and get 76.


I've not done math with this kid. But he gets it. :) In fact, it's me who doesn't really have a clue what we're doing. I had to check his sound answer with paper and borrowing because I didn't understand what he did.

Julie B

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