MATH Magazine Editor Takes on the Times
By Scholastic on May 14th, 2008
I am not doubting the accuracy of the experiment. I am merely urging the math community to never turn its back on the real world. Abstract equations and concrete examples can and must co-exist.
Let’s not forget a simple fact: Kids hate math. Not all of them, of course, but an inexcusable percentage. Maybe they enjoy it when they’re very young, but into the “tween” years, something happens. Math becomes too difficult. Too boring. Too disconnected from their everyday lives. (And the transition can be even worse for girls, in part because of the added societal pressures they face.) That age-old question, “When will I ever need to know this?” has too often gone unanswered. Top students who dislike math might still be able to squeak by with some extra effort. Their underperforming peers, not provided with proper intervention or motivation, can get lost in the shuffle and give up on math forever.
Of course, these negative attitudes carry over into adulthood. What’s worse, those in the humanities who consider themselves intellectuals often take a smug pride in being “no good” at math. (I was a creative writing major myself, so I’ve known my fair share of smug humanities types. And not one of them can remember how to find the percent change from one number to another. It’s the amount of change divided by the original amount, expressed as a percent, people!) And yet they still consider themselves the best and brightest. You’d be hard-pressed to find a scientist or mathematician who brags about being a substandard reader or writer. No, they’d be embarrassed by that fact. But it’s not just a question of self-perception: Lack of understanding of math routinely causes costly errors at every level of the professional world, as catalogued in John Allen Paulos’s excellent book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences.
Do students need to love math? A 2006 Brookings Institution report found that eighth-graders worldwide who claimed they did not enjoy math actually performed better on tests than students who said they did enjoy the subject. If our only goal is higher scores on standardized exams, perhaps a back-to-basics approach would be sufficient. But don’t we expect more for ourselves and for future generations? We can have it all: higher test results by students who understand and appreciate the beautiful logic of math, and how it underlies nearly every aspect of our existence.
But it takes both sides working together. Practice the calculation steps, formulas, and theories so students develop fluency and automatic recall of the information, and show how these concepts connect to the world around us. Point out the countless cross-curricular links to science, literature, history, art, and more. Demonstrate how the skills they’ve just learned help us find the sneaky fees for text messaging or calculate A-Rod’s slugging percentage, allow an archaeologist to measure her dig site with the Pythagorean theorem, or enable Ohio State researchers to perform statistical analysis when preparing a report. The people who issue such worthwhile reports probably aren’t the ones who hated math when they were kids.
Instead of letting university researchers or a magazine editor have the last word on the topic, I thought I’d let a teacher weigh in. So I sent the article to Patrick Casseday, who teaches at Berkshire Junior/Senior High School, in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. Patrick replied:
“As one who has been in the classroom for 27 years, I can say that the students I have taught enjoy more and I believe learn more by using everyday, concrete examples, more so than the abstract problems. This is one study, as I’m sure there could be found others to refute this. All I know is I’m in the classroom with 150 students everyday and pretty much by now know what works and what doesn’t. For example, tonight I’m having my 8th graders do ‘Kentucky Derby Math’ for homework, next week ‘Prom Math’ and so forth. I try and relate the themes of the week using math problems…like ‘Yankees’ High Pay, Low Results Math’(no …just kidding).”