Math Doesn’t Make Sense

An opinion editor at the Post says “The trouble with schools is too much math”.

He’s both right and wrong.

It’s certainly true that our education system far overvalues math. That should be obvious just in terms of the huge emphasis given to the subject in standardized testing. As well as in curriculum inflicted on most students in K12 (and thus heavily tested), which is almost entirely focused on school math.

School math, especially the sequence studied in high school, is largely devoted to the mechanical processes of the subject. The stuff that, in the real world, has been turned over to computers. Like the sainted quadratic formula.

I know only two people who can readily recite the quadratic formula. My wife is one. She’s always been a whiz at school, but, as a choir teacher, she has absolutely no use for the equation (other than as an occasional party trick). The other person is my brother, who works with electron-beam technology as a mechanical engineer. He’s in the minority of people who actually use advanced math daily.

For most of us, the formula was one of many alphabet soup combinations crammed into our heads in high school long enough to pass a math test, then promptly forgotten. I’m queasy all over again just thinking about it. As a functioning adult in society, I have no use for imaginary numbers or the Pythagorean theorem. I’ve never needed to determine the height of a flagpole by measuring its shadow and the angle of the sun.

We are repeatedly told that kids must study math in order to prepare for technical and high paying jobs. Even though surveys and reports show that fewer than one quarter of adults do “any calculations more complicated than basic fractions” in their work.

The vast majority of those workers are using math as one tool for solving a problem. They are not required to recall formulas, insert a prepared set of numbers, and crank through them by hand to produce one nice, neat, right answer.

Instead of 12 years of math instruction, the writer believes students should be spending much of that time studying “applied logic”.

Logic teaches us how to trace a claim back to its underlying premises and to test each link in a chain of thought for unsupported assumptions or fallacies. People trained in logic are better able to spot the deceptions and misdirection that politicians so often employ. They also have a better appreciation for different points of view because they understand the thought processes that produce multiple legitimate conclusions concerning the same set of facts. They are comfortable with spirited dialogue about what’s best for our society.

Here I think he’s only partially correct.

We are constantly told that math teaches “logical thinking”, so that phrase “trained in logic” brings back many bad memories of having to memorize mathematical theorems and perform “two-column proofs” in Geometry. I suspect it may do the same for you.

Instead, we need something in the middle between a ton of heavily-structure, process-driven math and formal “logic training”.

A curriculum where students learn various ways to approach problems. How to determine which tools might be useful to solve them (including math) and methods to construct potential solutions. With an emphasis on the likely possibility of there being multiple “right” answers and how to handle that ambiguity.

Because our current system of school math teaches kids that there is almost always one right result. While out here in the real world, answers are a little messy and far too often include the phrase “it depends”.

In the photo, some geometry in the ceiling of a Washington DC Metro station. Lots of math went into building those structures but I doubt anyone had to remember the formulas or crank through them by hand.

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