Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Value of Math

I recently came across Andrew Hacker’s New York Times piece Is Algebra Necessary. He seems to be arguing that we don’t need to teach so much math, but I think all he demonstrates is that we teach it badly. Before looking seriously into these questions, I have some ideas for people with less thoughtful opinions than Hacker does on the uselessness of math, such as “why should we teach algebra if it obviously has no use in the real world?” I guess I’ve heard this question one time too many.

<Rant On>

Here are a few thoughts for the people who believe math has no use in real life and shouldn’t be taught so much in school.

Remember to make the minimum payment on your credit cards this month. I like to keep my dividends flowing.

When you look for a new vehicle, remember that leasing gets you the biggest truck for the payment you can afford.

When you look for a house, your bank will tell you the biggest mortgage they’ll let you have.

When you find a nice financial advisor in a good-looking suit, he probably won’t mention the 2.5% MERs you’ll be paying because 2.5% is a small number anyway.

If you make your own investment decisions, it’s much easier to just assume you’re doing better than average than it is to do some math to compare your results to benchmarks.

<Rant Off> 

There is certainly room to improve the way we teach math in schools. Many math teachers aren’t very good at math themselves. The trouble is that people who can do math often have career options that pay better than teaching. Because we don’t pay a premium for math teachers, we’re left with too many math teachers with poor skills.

Another problem is that we try to teach the same level of math to almost all students. Mathematical ability in students varies wildly. What is boring for some is unfathomable for others. Effective tiering is needed. But we shouldn’t just stop teaching math to weaker math students at some young age. They should continue at least until the end of high school with each student at a level he or she can handle.

After learning to read and write effectively in your mother tongue, I place the importance of learning math ahead of all other subjects. Not everyone is cut out to study math at the highest levels, but all students should be taken as far as they can go up the ladder of math skills.

13 comments:

  1. As someone with a Math degree, my parents have Math degrees and I hopefully have a child very interested in Math, I believe I agree with you! Math gets a bad rap, it's not fricking Latin (which still has it's uses as well), it is the cornerstone of all important Sciences!

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    1. @Alan: That's quite a methy family. I'd fit in well with that crowd.

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  2. Another mathy family here! "Is algebra necessary" is sort of like asking "is literature necessary", "is art necessary", or "is history necessary". They are all important to being successful and happy in our world.

    And what is "Fermat's Dilemma" that Hacker says can't be remembered in the article? That Fermat was too busy with his day job to write down the proof of his last theorem? :)

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    1. @Greg: I'm guessing he meant "Fermat's Last Theorem".

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  3. And don't forget a simple money-saving tip that uses geometry: The 14" pizza is (essentially) twice the size of the 10 inch pizza.

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  4. I wish that my high school had had the tiered math programs you mention - math is not my strong point, but I was capable of basic math concepts, what I would call functional math literacy. Unfortunately my teacher catered to the math-geeks and shamed me for being less talented, despite all my efforts, which was very demoralizing and discouraging.

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    1. @Tara: Yours is a common experience, sadly. Tiering is challenging for schools. It's much easier to just slap all kids at the same level. But making two students with very different math abilities work side-by-side is demoralizing for the weaker student and boring for the stronger student.

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  5. Tiering is a great idea!.. Math clubs could help achieve this concept. Lack of "good" math teachers is a serious problem though! I had my kids take private tuition when in 11th and 12th grades.

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  6. One aspect of teaching math was not yet covered in the post and comments - brain development. To develop brain needs exercise, just like any other organ. People who study complicated subjects - math, science, languages - have a more interlinked brain structure, they are capable to adapt and react quicker.

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  7. I agree with you completely on this topic, Michael. Have you read "A Mathematician's Lament"? It will sadden you to no end: http://www.maa.org/devlin/lockhartslament.pdf.

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    1. @Raman: I hadn't read it. After a quick skim, it looks very interesting. I think the real fix for math education is to have math teachers who actually like math and are good at real math.

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  8. Great post! Math was my favourite subject in school. However I remember some of my friends hating it. I think that math lessons should be tied with important life decisions like buying a new car or a home, budgeting or investment decisions. I find that my students are more interested in doing math calculations when they are trying to solve real life problems (i.e. can they move out and live independently based on a high school graduate salary).

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    1. @Maya Kuc Corbic: Thanks. I think trying to connect math teaching to real-world problems is a good idea, as long as we teach the basics solidly as well.

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