Math Is Not The Same As Math Class

On a recent edition of his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin1 discusses why math in the real world doesn’t line up with the subject taught in school.

In his monolog, Godin argues that everyone is good at math since most of us use the concepts everyday without necessarily thinking about the “math” involved. He illustrates his point using the Monty Hall Problem, a probability puzzle related to simple choices, based on the game show Let’s Make a Deal and named for its long-time host.

The whole episode is worth a listen2, but, as a former math teacher, I found his introductory remarks about those math classes particularly interesting. 

Math class might be hard but math… math isn’t what we think it is. One reason that math class feels hard is because math isn’t what they teach in math class.

It may be that you think you are no good at math, but you are probably mistaken. You might mean that you are no good at arithmetic, because arithmetic is boring and you know how to arithmetic with a computer.

It might be that you’re no good at memorizing formulas that make no sense to you. And that’s probably a good idea, because of all the things to be good at, memorizing formulas that make no sense to you is not one of them.

School was built to create people who could do well on tests, and so quote math unquote educators (also in quotes) decided that the easiest way to have people do well on the tests was to teach them arithmetic and have them memorize equations that they didn’t understand.

I’m not sure I agree that the concept of school was built around testing, even though that’s what it’s become.

However, his assessment of the content of math class is far too accurate. The math curriculum used in most schools really is based on arithmetic. It’s repetitious, most of the problems done on their smartphone, and it is pretty boring.

When students get to high school and the titles get narrowly specific (like Algebra), the formulas become more complex but the process is still mostly a matter of arithmetic (we just stick letters in place of the numbers) and memorizing. And also still largely boring for most kids.

Let’s face it, there is much about K12 education that is out of date and in need of a complete re-think. The concept of “math class” would be a great place to start.

The picture shows Monty Hall with his famous three doors (occasionally curtains) that were incorporated into the problem. Although he was going strong as host of Let’s Make a Deal when I started teaching math, I didn’t learn of the problem named for him until much later.

1. Godin is a popular business writer whose daily blog, books, and other work often include some insightful observations that apply out here in the real world. I find his writing on education is sometimes too simplistic but it still provides some good thought material.

2. The math discussion is in the first fifteen minutes. You can probably skip the question and answer section (plus a promotion for his online course) in the second half.

What If There’s No “Fix” For Schools?


A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post asks in the headline “Can we fix the schools?”. Followed by the parenthetical answer “Maybe not”.

The writer, whose focus for the paper is economics, is trying to make the case, based on a “major new study”, that the federal government should let “states and localities see whether they can make schools work better”.

Fair enough. I suppose he may have a point. However, it’s his terminology, also used by many politicians and other education experts, that bothers me.

That idea of “fixing” schools.

“Fix” implies that we only need to make some adjustments to the system to get everything “working better”. Like a car that needs a tune up or new muffler. Or replacing the cracked screen on your smartphone.

Nobody takes their car into the shop for repair and questions the fundamental concept of the automobile. When getting a leak fixed, none of us ask the plumber to re-imagine the idea of indoor plumbing.

But maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing with the idea of school. Rather than trying to “fix” the system by creating new testing programs or abdicating the responsibility of public education to private companies.

The idea of “fixing” schools assumes that the basic structure created a century (or more) ago is still sound and remains valid for a very uncertain future.

It assumes that grouping kids by chronological age, presenting them with a stream of data divided into discrete topics, and using mass assessment tools to determine their understanding is still the best system for learning. (If it ever was.)

What if there is no “fix” for schools and we need to start over?

I shot the image above, of a man working under the hood of his classic Chevy, on the streets of Havana. From what we were told, the owners of those cars need to be very creative to keep them running.

The Digital Ownership Illusion

Welcome to Nothing

Microsoft recently announced they are shutting down their ebook store. Which means that anyone who purchased books will lose access to them on July 1st, although the company has promised refunds.

For most people that likely means nothing, since they probably didn’t even know Microsoft was in the digital book business in the first place. But the closing does provide yet another reminder that we probably don’t own the digital media in our collections.

I think for most people it’s pretty clear that media streaming services like Netflix and Spotify and software like Adobe’s Creative Cloud are only rental agreements. After all, you get a monthly bill with access to everything available. And another stark reminder on those relatively rare occasions when they are offline.

However, it’s not as obvious when you click the “Buy” button for something digital at a so-called store like Amazon or iTunes.

Those files may be sitting on your device but they also come with a software tether back to the company, commonly known as “digital right management” (DRM). Unlike a physical book or DVD, the code prevents you from making a copy of it1, loaning it to your friend, or selling it at your next yard sale.

That means you only “own” that ebook, movie, or TV show as long as the vendor allows. If, for some reason, they (or the copyright owner) removes it from their catalog, or the store closes entirely, your ability to use the media vanishes.

All of which is not to say you shouldn’t “buy” any digital media. Just understand that what you’re actually getting is a long term lease that can be revoked at any time.

Unlike the Microsoft ebook store, this hotel probably reopened when after winter was done.

1. Most DVDs also come with DRM code that’s supposed to prevent copying. However, there is plenty of software available that will easily bypass those locks. It’s legal for personal use. Not so much for loaning or gifting the files.

Listen To This

Podcast icon png 1091214

Three podcast episodes I heard this past weekend that you might like…

Related to my recent rant concerning creativity as a skill, a segment of Freakonomics asked Where Do Good Ideas Come From? (61:34) The host spoke with a scientist, a graphic designer, a museum curator, James Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame), and others about their creative process.

This is the third part in their series titled How To Be Creative and part two is also good, asking Why Do Schools Kill It Off?

Another podcast segment was also part three of a series, this one from Planet Money and dealing with the issue of antitrust (23:56). Specifically this segment discusses whether the size and reach of huge companies like Amazon “is a threat to competition, and ultimately to consumers”.

As with every segment of Planet Money, they do an excellent job of making a complex issue both interesting and even entertaining.

Finally is the first episode of a new podcast from the news site Quartz called Should This Exist? (33:36). Each segment looks at the promise of a new technology, along with the possible negative impact on both the user and society.

The first invention certainly fits the criteria: Halo is a headset that is supposed to stimulate the brain and help the wearer learn “as fast as a kid”. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

My only criticism of the segment is that I don’t think the host challenged the inventor enough, especially on the potential ethical issues. But the premise of the podcast sounds like it will be worth at least a few more listens.

Something Is Missing From This Space

C Note

Several years ago in a photography workshop, the leader told us that he never used the phrase “taking pictures”, preferring instead “making images”.

Besides sounding a little like theft, he said that “taking” was too passive for what we were trying to do. Making photographs is more of a creative process, rather than a one-shot deal.1 And that is how we should approach our craft.

This variation in the way we speak of photographs often jumps into my head when following discussions about maker spaces and Maker Faires.

Why isn’t photography included in maker space activities? Why aren’t photographers demonstrating their craft at a Maker Faire?

When the concept of “maker” is addressed, most people include things like robots, 3D printers, coding, and other things electronics-related.

Drones? Sure. Welding, puppets, and paper craft? Why not? Even VR and AR, which are still largely out-of-the-box activities that are not easy to make.

Making good images, those that evoke some kind of response from the viewer, requires thought and planning on the part of the photographer. And that creative process is very accessible to almost everyone, even more so than some of the higher profile maker space components. 

Ok, just something to think about when considering who and what is a “maker”.

The picture, made at the 2018 Maker Faire NoVA, reminds me that making music is also often missing from the concept of maker spaces. Although I think his tuba was more about the technology than the music. More pictures from this event are in this Flickr gallery.

1. Pun very much intended. :-)