Why algebra doesn’t matter

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Today Mr.5 raced around our local streets on his bike, without trainer wheels, for the first time.

Another little milestone for him. And he rode perfectly, not falling off once (not like me, as I recall).

I got to thinking about things that he needs to learn in life. Obviously riding a bike without training wheels is a small thing. But what about things he needs to know by the time he’s an adult? What are the important skills that our kids need in order to survive (and thrive) independently?

Actually, when I have my parenting hat on, this is one thing I think about a fair bit.

When I was a kid, having an academic as a father meant a lot of my learning revolved around grades. Not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with that – doing well academically can help you get a head start in life. Whether it’s right or wrong, society places a fair bit of importance on academic results and formal education.

Personally, I think the importance we place on exam results is very flawed. For the record, I didn’t do that well academically, but fortunately, my parents also saw the value in other forms of education when I was a child.

Things like gaining street smarts. Valuing people regardless of their social or financial status. Having the responsibility of a paid job. Seeing how less fortunate people live. Being part of a team. Seeing a bit of the world.

When I think back to the things that taught me the most growing up, it certainly wasn’t the algebra homework or endless modern history essays I had to write (although the latter taught me much more than the former).

It was getting my first job at 12 – a paper route, earning I think around $11 a fortnight, getting up well before school to deliver papers on a Wednesday, and also the Saturday. Even I knew it wasn’t much money for the effort – but it let me experience the satisfaction of earning my own money. That first taste of independence.

My Mum taking me on her rounds when she was doing Meals on Wheels – as a kid, I pretty much detested this – but it exposed me to how some elderly people live, what limited options many have, and how they are reliant on others. Taking meals to homes for the disabled taught me just how fortunate I was in life.

Team sports – playing teeball and softball for years every weekend. Taking pride in being an important part of a team. Learning the feeling of responsibility – perhaps not wanting to turn up one morning, but doing so anyway, because you know you just have to. Understanding what teamwork is, albeit in a basic way, but the principles are the same.

Street smarts – my Dad dragging me on busy public transport to and from his work (I’d often go with him during school holidays and just hang out, roaming the Uni campus). Learning the train lines and city underground loop at a young age. The smells, the beggars, the dirtiness, the busyness, all became familiar.

Travel – my Dad & I living in London for a few months when I was 16. In the morning he’d say “Right I have to go to work, here’s 20 pounds, see you later on. Be careful”. Learning how to cook on a single portable stove top, and for the most part, decipher the London Underground and bus network on my own. The little things you learn – like buying the right train ticket. Getting the right bus. Deciding if a stranger seems OK before asking them a question. Ending up in the wrong place and working out how to get home, despite feeling uneasy and out of your depth.

People – that everyone has a story. Driving home through the back streets of Sydney city one night with my Dad when he slammed on the brakes and told me to get out right now and help him. We lifted a homeless man up off the ground, his head & shoulders hanging over the gutter onto the road. He came to, and we sat with him on a park bench in the middle of the city for a while, my Dad checking he was ok. He was an alcoholic. The Salvos were across the road and he’d been heading there. He didn’t ask us for money. In another life, he’d had a good education, been an English teacher, had a child. Then his wife left him, and he started drinking. I remember thinking I knew he was telling the truth, because even now I can remember how articulate he was, despite being affected by alcohol.

We sat there for a long time. My Dad was keen to hear his life story.

Back in London – a beggar asking for change. He looked like a drunken, unshaven criminal and I was scared out of my wits, trying to pull my Dad away. Instead Dad offered him 5p as a joke (Dad, do not joke with someone like this!!) but the beggar laughed and as I stood there wishing we could go, my Dad proceeded to find out his life story too. He had been in the Navy, had done some stupid things, been in jail and here he was. He was from Wales originally & my Dad took great interest in his accent and dialect. Chatting like they were old mates. I’d been right – he was indeed a drunken criminal – but one with a great sense of humour (and who got more than 5p out of my Dad).

Do those moments (and there are others) make me want to sit down with every homeless person I see, have a chat, and empty my pockets? No. Ok, occasionally. And when my boys are older, I probably will. Because it taught me to respect and value others, to see what’s behind a person.

As for my boys, I also want them to be able to navigate their way around this city. See other parts of the city where people aren’t as fortunate as us, and see it often. Experience other cities and countries. When they are old enough, to earn some money, even if small – and even if it affects their algebra marks. Play team sports. To always take an interest in others.

And one other thing.

To discover their passions, what they love and are good at, and to encourage that in them.

And the upside of my poor academic results? Gaining resilience. That’s a big one.

Failing those algebra exams isn’t all bad!

What do you think is most important for kids to learn growing up?

Alison x

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5 responses to “Why algebra doesn’t matter

  1. Very nicely written. I sometimes forget that grades are not everything.

    I do want my kids to learn teamwork and empathy. I also want them to find their passion and follow it and hopefully use their talents to make a world a little better than they found it.

    Cherie

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