Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What is Math Good For?

This summer, while up north with my friends, my 10th grader and my friend's 12th grader had the following conversation. (My daughter goes to school in Ann Arbor and my friend's daughter goes to school in Grand Traverse County.)
"Math class is a total waste of time."
"Yeah, it is. Really, there's no need to teach math past middle school."
(Now, note that both of these kids took Algebra in 8th grade, so understand that comment as including Algebra I. Oh, and the issue here is not grades--they are both straight A students.)
Here I interjected that "I use math all the time." But they interjected semi-sarcastically,
"Do you use geometry?"
The truth is that I mostly use algebra (I) and statistics. Although the statistics might sometimes be based on geometric or algebra II or calculus concepts, I don't "see" that background. I don't need to know the difference between a cosine or tangent in order to push the button on the calculator. Yes, the concepts help somewhat, but does everyone really need geometry or algebra II?

"Really," my friend's daughter continued, "I asked my math teacher last year (algebra II) what math was good for, and he said to me, 'Well, if you become a math teacher you will use it teaching math!" (As if. . . ) She laughed.

I really think that--minimally--math teachers need to be able to come up with better explanations!
The fact is that currently, at least in Michigan, math is driving the rest of the curriculum, and it's driving student placement in other classes. How does it drive the curriculum? Here are two examples. In middle school in Ann Arbor, the only subject that is "tracked" is math--so your class placement for other classes is often based on the math class placement. (If you have math third hour, then you can't have Social Studies third hour. Therefore, advanced math kids often have similar schedules--and the same is true about remedial math kids.) The state's math requirements have been upped substantially (although the Detroit News reports that they may be removed). In high school, everyone is now expected to pass Algebra II. If you do poorly in math, you may have to repeat math at the expense of your electives. And if you've been wondering why several local schools have switched to a trimester system--this is a piece of a reason (you get additional electives over the course of the year, and if a student fails a math class they can repeat it in the same year).

So: let's either explain why we teach math, or. . . stop expecting kids to learn it or think of it as relevant. I liked this take on the subject of Why We Learn Math.

This writer points out that,
the subjects that apply the math are always taught after the math itself. Physics, economics, and so forth make the need for quadratic equations very clear, but you would never teach someone physics unless they had first mastered quadratic equations
and that
judging math by its usefulness is missing the point. Why do math teachers need to prove that their material will be vital for daily life in order to make it worth learning? Poetry would never be able to pass that test, nor would history or art. . . We fully recognize that sonnets aren’t “useful,” but we still learn them. We think it makes your life better to have the wider, deeper view of the world that comes with having studied art and literature.

What do you think?


  1. Even if one wants to be mercenary about it, I think an argument can be made for both geometry and sonnets. What matters is less the specific knowledge than having learned to think in a variety of ways. That said, math education would probably benefit from including more applied lessons. A quick browse through this book left me thinking that geometry should probably play less of a role in HS math while there should be more probability, statistics, and chaos theory (okay, some of that may technically be classified as geometry).

  2. I completely agree with you about learning to think in different ways. What was really shocking to me was that MATH teachers cannot articulate why math is important. And really, most kids tend to do well at things that they think are important (or at least they try to do well). So convincing kids that something is important is key.
    One year my child had a teacher whom I thought gave way too much homework. But my daughter would defend the homework, saying, "It's important because I'm learning x." In other words, the teacher had the gift of convincing kids that what they were doing was important.