Want Smarter Students? Stop Teaching Math

A mathematician argues that we need to represent math as it once was: an art.

| Winter 2015

The American educational system is broken. It’s been broken for a long time, and we all know it. Everything points to it. The United States ranks 36th in mathematics. This is below Vietnam, where there are 17,000 deaths per year from tuberculosis; and yet they can educate their students better than the U.S. But even more simply than that, we feel it in ourselves.

Let’s do an experiment shall we? Use yourself as a sample data point and think of the last math course you took. Can you remember what the title of the course was? Maybe? OK. Now, can you remember anything from the course content? Kinda? Something about how to solve for an unknown? Maybe something about angles of triangles? Or was it rates of change or something?

Let’s be serious: Unless you pursued a career in science, there is almost no chance you managed to keep anything from those many hours you spent sitting in math classes, and the many more you spent pouring over math books in hopes of absorbing some modicum of understanding that would safeguard you against a failing grade. This is clearly a travesty. But it really is much worse than that.

Do you have any idea what those things you studied were? Regardless of whether you can remember how to use those tools or not, were you ever told why they were interesting, or what they could be used for? Who decided math was important?

Perhaps you can recite the quadratic formula. OK. Perhaps you even know how to use it to solve a quadratic equation. But can you say why you would want to do so, or what it means when you “solve” a quadratic equation? What can you do with this knowledge? Why did anyone care enough to figure it out? Why has it been retained in the collection of human knowledge, and valued so greatly that is has been passed down over hundreds of years, and finally crammed down the throats of unsuspecting students?

These questions all have answers, and good ones, but they are never
explored in math classes.

1/14/2016 12:41:52 AM

I love your description of mathematics as an art. As a lover of math, with a BS in math and MA in philosophy (logic), I also think of math as a language -- a language that can describe ideas and the world. As a language, it's only alive when it's being used -- and only when it's inner capabilities and anomalies are understood or experienced can it really be fully appreciated as beauty. That comes from just playing with it...Playing with formulas, numbers, logic and seeing where you go. That's what I'd like to see happen in our education system -- teach it like a language -- immersively. That requires that teachers LOVE the subject -- starting from Kindergarten. And I wonder how that will happen when the gateway to prestigious positions is to jump over the hurdle of abstracted math -- so we end up with grade school teachers who hate math. How can you teach about the beauty of something you hate? or fear?

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