Why This Math?

A recent, very short post on the NPR Ed blog covers almost 500 years worth of math curriculum.

However, as a Harvard professor explains, the trip doesn’t really require all that many words since not much has changed in that time. After reviewing some very old textbooks, he says, we find “a curriculum that is so similar to the curriculum we have right now it might as well have been written by the good folks who wrote the Common Core”.

That professor is Houman Harouni, who became interested in this topic when his elementary students asked the question all of us who teach math have heard at one point: why do we have to learn this stuff?

But it isn’t just why we teach math that fascinates Harouni. He is particularly interested in why we teach math the way we do: “Why these topics? Why in this order? Why in this way?”

He says history offers the best answer.

Harouni has studied texts dating to ancient Babylonia, ancient Sumer and ancient Egypt, and, he says, he has found three main ways of teaching math, each associated with a different economic group.

The three types of math Harouni identified are “money math”, used by traders and merchants, “artisanal math”, for carpenters, masons and other craftsmen, and “philosophical math”, which was only studied by “elites”. The first two groups arranged for their math to be taught to their children, trainees, and apprentices, solely with the goal of extending their influence and wealth. Relatively few people outside of colleges studied philosophical math until very recently.

Today the math curriculum used in most schools is a mashup of all three, with elementary kids mostly working in money math, because “we live in a world where money matters”, with some artisanal math in the form of Geometry. That’s followed in middle and high schools with most students receiving a heavy dose of that philosophical math in the standard path from Algebra to Calculus.

The bottom line is, the school math we impose on students in most American schools is largely a legacy from centuries long past. Much of it needs to be thrown out (or drastically rewritten) and replaced with concepts and skills that better fit with the way math is applied in the 21st century rather than the 16th.

For most kids in K12 schools, math should be studied as it was 500 years ago, reflecting how it is used in today’s real world: as a tool for solving problems in many different aspects of life. And not as an independent, overemphasized and excessively tested, stand-alone subject.

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