Maths for teenagers

How many people say, ‘I couldn’t possibly teach my teenager any algebra or geometry. I never understood them myself at school…‘?

Seems a fair comment. But then, if you didn’t understand these concepts in school, why do you suppose that your child might do any better? Your child has some of your genetic make-up, and problems with mathematical concepts often run in the family.

Moreoever, if you didn’t understand your high-school maths classes, did you enjoy them? Did they inspire you to find out more about the mathematical world… or did they engender in you a lifelong dislike of the subject? More likely the latter.

How much maths do you really need?

As an adult, have you needed geometry and algebra and so on? Have you even needed to do complex long division or to multiply fractions? I doubt it! The only reason you would need to know these things is if you’re going to teach them in school.

I  DID like school maths – I loved algebra and calculus and all those things, but I knew that I would never use them in real life. I studied maths at university, and worked for some years as a computer programmer. I needed to think logically – but I never needed any of those maths skills I had enjoyed so much in my high school years. When I’ve needed to calculate prices and sizes of carpets, or balance my bank account, I use a calculator or computer software. I need a conceptual awareness of book-keeping at a basic level, but that skill was not covered in my school, or my degree. I picked it up in about five minutes when I opened my first bank account.

So…

There’s no need to panic about home educating your teenager if you don’t have much of a grasp of secondary school maths. Brainstorm with your teen just what kind of maths he might need for his chosen career – if he’s thought about that. Discuss what kinds of things he would like to know. Think about the kinds of problems he might need to solve, either now or when he’s older. Help him with strategies for problem-solving and involve him in your budgeting, baking, shopping and house decorating.

The more he thinks of maths as a part of everyday life, the more likely he is to be intrigued and want to know more. It’s only when we become afraid – or bored – or totally bemused – that we back away from something and become unable to learn.

Maths for teenagers

If your teenager does enjoy maths, and already knows more than you do, then, whatever you have been doing so far is working. No two children learn in the same way. There are several different maths curricula available, and text-books of the kind used in schools. If your child is learning algebra from one of these, or from a TV programme, or a web-site devoted to this, or a game  – then encourage him; you could ask him to teach you! If he is struggling to understand a new concept, you can do one of two things: put it aside for later, or find a friend or relative – or even pay a tutor – who can help.

What happens when – out of the blue – your teen (or younger child) suddenly asks, ‘Mum, how do you do simultaneous equations?’ – or, as happened to me – ‘What are sines and cosines?’ These questions may occur even in an unstructured, unschooling environment. Your child might read something about them, or find a relevant puzzle in a magazine, or get stuck on some concept in a different context.

I thought, when we started home education, that it would be helpful for me to have a good background in maths. But it’s not necessarily an advantage when my children had difficulties understanding. Some things which seem ‘obvious’ to me are not at all obvious to others. We have different learning styles, and different personalities.

Learn maths together

When your teenager asks a question, don’t worry if you don’t know the answer. If you have a good maths text book, you should be able to find the relevant section. If you don’t understand the topic, see if you can learn together. Home education should be educational for the parents as well as the children. When your child asks the question, then is the time to try and help him find the answer because he has the motivation to learn.

Alternatively there are some excellent web sites devoted to this topic – I have listed a few below, or you can check the maths resources page. Or you can call your friendly local maths expert. But take your child’s question seriously, and don’t tell him it’s far too complicated.

No drill and busywork

Do children need continual drill in order to learn? No. Extensive drill does nothing, other than making students angry and bored. Nobody ever learned from busywork. If your child understands a mathematical concept, he can work one or two examples to show that he understands. If he gets them wrong, he needs to look back at the teaching material, or find another book that explains in a way he understands, or re-think his strategy. Then perhaps he can try a couple more examples.

But whether he understands or not, working through dozens of the same kind of question will not help. If he cannot understand a topic after several attempts and different approaches, it may simply be that he’s not ready for it. Put it aside, work on something else, and come back to it a few months later. What seemed impossibly difficult may suddenly ‘click’. Coming to it freshly may provide the inspiration that’s needed, which months of drill would destroy.

So… your teen will not necessarily learn maths if he goes to school, and he may – if he doesn’t have much aptitude for the subject – learn to dislike and avoid it. If he isn’t learning from one method, try another, or put it aside for a while. Browse your library for interesting books that cover different angles of maths. Perhaps you would enjoy puzzle books, or high level model-building. Or take a programming course. Or look at maths in music and art. All education should be fulfilling and worthwhile, and also enjoyable, fitting in with the child’s interests and motivation, as well as his abilities and aptitudes.

If all else fails, but your teenager needs maths skills for his future career – or perhaps a qualification in maths in order to go to the college of his choice – he can learn what he needs when he’s older. He can take an adult education course when he’s 16 or 18, do an extensive ‘maths skills’ class with other people who find it difficult, and probably learn more than he would have learned in several years at high school anyway.

Other useful web sites:

Maths games for teens – a selection of logical thinking or maths concept games
BBC GCSE bitesize – useful for teens struggling with more advanced concepts in various subjects
Cool math games – rather a dazzling array of colours, but some good games for younger teens

To show how you can teach basic maths without workbooks or drill, see:

Simultaneous equations
Two-digit multiplication
Geometric solids
Prime numbers and factors