Susan Midlarsky

author • consultant • tutor | inspiring excellence
Math Education US Education

Does our math education impact how we value math (or don't)?


The author of Social Media for Trainers and I have been having an interesting debate about the place of higher math education in schools. I had read her book and found it useful, so I looked up her Facebook page. There, under the heading, “Stop teaching math,” she placed a link on her Facebook page to the blog article titled “The Case Against Math.” Of course I found this provocative and clicked over to read the article.

While I agree with the thesis of the article – that the way we teach math and value it as a proxy for measuring intelligence is not useful, and that it should be changed – I do not think we should reduce or eliminate it as a requirement in education. Instead, I agree for the most part with how the article’s author puts it:

“If we must teach math, teach it  as if math was just one aspect of the larger concepts and questions that are the main thrust of education: critical thinking, problem solving, communication, empathy, and creativity. If we must teach math, teach it through music, art, science, technology, history, cooking, construction, engineering etc. because math as an abstract system is useful to very few of our students. If we must teach math, focus less on the answers and the algorithms for specific types of problems and focus more on the questions and the processes of problems.”

I do think that teaching math in an integrated way is best, but I also see merit in teaching math as a subject unto itself, as long as it’s taught in ways that make sense. The process of teaching through problem solving and from conceptual to abstract allows math to make sense to all students I’ve encountered, and problem solving therefore becomes a fun challenge, not a chore.

As I mentioned on the Facebook page, I once had a friend who was working as a carpenter. He asked for my help in figuring out how long a piece of wood needed to be to complete an attic renovation project. I showed him how to solve the problem using the Pythagorean theorem. This was before I became a teacher, but he told me that if he had had teachers like me in high school, he probably would not have left school, as this was useful stuff to know.

The author’s response was to ask 3,000 Twitter followers for examples of using advanced math in their everyday lives. She received one tweet about a problem similar to the carpentry one, and one about helping a child with trigonometry homework.

This doesn’t surprise me if the vast majority of her followers are Americans. I would love to know, though, if we would get a different response from people raised in other countries, especially those in countries that have consistently scored highly in math. If no studies have been done on this, I would like to study it myself. Does how we are raised to think of math affect how we use it (or don’t) in our daily lives, or is the subject objectively useless to all but scientists and engineers and taught only as a carry-over from ancient times? What do you think?

UPDATE: I discussed this topic today with a student of mine who is “unschooled” and started fifth-grade Singapore math with me when she was 15 years old. Two and a half years later, she is at high school Algebra level. Her main interest is fashion design, and she’s been attending high school fashion design classes for a couple of years. She told me that she was pleased to put her fraction knowledge to use in her sewing class last spring. That’s only one story; do you have your own?

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