11 damn lies we tell our kids (about maths)

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Transcript of 11 damn lies we tell our kids (about maths)

  • 1. Eleven damn lies we tell our kids (about maths)
    - A bunch of opinions by David C, Aug 2011

2. 1.
You need to be good at maths to get through life
3. Actually no. Most people never use algebra after they leave school. That includes all the skills based on algebra, such as calculus, trigonometry, probability theory, complex numbers and matrices. Most people never need to interpret graphs, measure areas and volumes, calculate or interpret statistics or bisect an angle. The trouble is that some of us a very small percentage do. And of those who do use these abstract skills, each of them uses it sparingly and probably uses just one or two of those skills and not the whole menagerie.
The only maths you really, really, really need is the art of counting. Anything more sophisticated than that can be handed over to other people to do for you: accountants, social workers, probation officers, bankers and the like. Counting is quite likely to be the only kind of maths you are required by circumstances to do frequently and quickly. After all, youd feel pretty silly if you had to ask a shop assistant to put eight apples into a bag for you.
4. Of course, if you want to manage your affairs personally, youll need to be able to add, subtract, multiply (at least just a little bit) and just maybe divide. These form about the first half of arithmetic the art of crunching numbers. The other half is fractions (which youll never need except for an understanding of halves and quarters), decimal numbers (which youll never need unless you count money or millimetres) and percentages (which youll never need unless you want to invest).
Now, managing your own affairs is only an option. Some people prefer to marry someone who can manage their affairs for them, or go on a benefit in which case someone else does the work for them.
5. So far Ive been talking a little tongue-in-cheek, but from here on Im serious. Most people learn the higher mathematical skills at high school, understand them to varying degrees and then promptly forget them when they leave school, only to confront them again twenty years later when their children go to high school. And when each generation who goes through this process asks the generation that came before, Why do I need to learn this stuff?, we have no honest answers. We shake our heads and say we dont know, or we lie.
Why are we doing this??? This is ridiculous and we all know it! Worldwide, the mistake is repeated generation after generation. Whose idea was this? And why cant we stop doing it?
6. The answer may be that underneath all our doubts about the utility of maths, we have in our hearts a secret desire to see our kids do better than us. No-one knows which of our kids will be amongst the one percent of algebra-learners will go on to be algebra-users at university, and so we happily push them into these classes to get a taste of it. That much is good, but from there, we go wrong, because none of us has the courage to march into an algebra class after our kids have had a year-long taste of it and say Shes tried it, doesnt like it, cant understand it, and wants to stop. That, basically is what we need to be able to do.
7. But then if we allow that kind of thing, we have to be absolutely certain that our decision to quit algebra at an early stage is the right one. Im part of a cohort of kids from the 1970s who didnt particularly like algebra at school but didnt dare to say so out loud, and so knuckled down and learnt it anyway, only to find a few years later that I actually liked it. You see, learning algebra is like learning to play the piano: you have to put in a lot of dreary practice in the early days to become good at it, and you never see the point of all that dreary learning until youve mastered a fair bit of it.
Now as an adult who has studied algebra for many years, I can use it to play around with ideas. I can design a spaceship with it and fly to the Moon on a computer program Ive designed myself. What I find particularly remarkable is that this is only possible because I have a desktop computer, and the people who gave me this remarkable skill with algebra did so at a time when nobodyd even thought of putting computers into the home. So although I can understand why I like algebra, I cant fathom why my teachers liked it.
8. Whatever generation youre born into, no-one needs algebra but some of us a very small number of us actually like algebra and use it in our hobbies. And Ive even heard that there are people out there, somewhere, who actually use algebra once in a while in their jobs! They must be as rare as hens teeth, but just imagine the kinds of things they must be doing: 3D graphics for Hollywood movies? Or maybe writing the code that enables a computer to do 3D graphics. Or maybe designing a computer that can run the code for 3D graphics. Or maybe designing a flight simulator that uses that 3D graphics to teach pilots how to fly. Or maybe its a simulator for putting men on the Moon. Or maybe its the formulae used to land a robot on Mars. Or maybe . Do I need to go on? Its all fantastic, world-changing work.
9. We have to stop telling our kids that maths is necessary. Instead we have to present it as an option that for some will be fun and possibly useful. To do that, we have to stop believing ourselves that algebra is somehow necessary for our kids. We have to make dropping out of a high school maths class permissible and not a sign that people who do so are stupid. There are plenty of people in high places who cant even multiply and nobody calls them stupid.
To balance all that, we have to make the learning of algebra a very attractive option so that those who are at least a little curious about it will try it. And from there, we - parents, teachers and students alike -will be able to identify those who really enjoy it and who want to go on to learn the deeper levels of the subject.
10. Im using the word enjoy in place of the word capable because I believe that in most cases (if not all cases) the one precedes the other. If you enjoy higher maths, it will give you the stamina to go on to get good at it, in the same way thata student who enjoys playing chopsticks on the piano will go on to learn trickier stuff.
Believe it or not, kids who enjoy algebra actually exist. Theyre very rare and their experience of algebra is often hampered by the need to sit amongst kids who hate it. But imagine if we could find these kids early in life and focus our teaching effort on them. Imagine where their lives could go. And imagine how much happier their teachers would be.
To make algebra an attractive option, we have to bring in people from industry who use it as part of their jobs, who can really show kids the power that algebra provides in certain very specialised careers.
11. Finally, we need to associate algebra very conspicuously with the professions it serves: medicine, engineering, astronomy and economics (to name a few). Either we start teaching these professional courses a little earlier in life, or entirely postpone the teaching of algebra to university. Only then will it rightly be seen for what it is: the language upon which all those professional courses depend. It would NOT be seen as the last relic of a dying brigade of subjects forced onto teenagers in less enlightened times, these being Latin, French, rhetoric, philosophy and the religious practices of the day.
12. 2.
Maths will get you a good job
13. Nope. To see clear evidence for that, you only have to look at me and what I do. Im a maths teacher and I get peanuts compared to the rich folks in careers that never use more than the basic skill of counting.
I met a bank CEO once who hired me to teach his daughter maths because he described himself as no good with numbers. Professional musicians, entertainers, tour guides, sports coaches, restaurateurs, cmon, you dont need me to list these people because you know plenty of them yourself. They MAKE MORE MONEY than your typical maths teacher or scientist. Theyre generally happier too because they work closely with people. They entertain people. People seek them out. That does not happen to scientists very often. Scientists spend a lot of time in solitude because thats where they need to be to fit an equation to a chunk of data.
14. Consider the aeroplane test:
Who would you rather sit next to for a ten-hour flight: a musician, a magician, a pro sportsman, an actor or a maths teacher? I dont suppose many mathematicians get invited to cocktail parties except for those organised by other mathematicians, and nobody goes to these anyway because even mathematicians cant stand the company of mathematicians! Have you heard all the jokes about scientists on aeroplanes? A passenger sits next to a cosmologist and starts asking questions about skin-care products. The cosmologist says, No no, I do astronomy. So the passenger then asks for advice on her horoscope and the astronomer says No, no, Im a kind of physicist. So the passenger then starts talking about her back pain and wants to know what she should do about it. Now quite exasperated, the physicist says No, no, Im a scientist, after which the passenger turns away and starts to read the newspaper.
15. I laugh at that too. Yet Ive seen the TED talks online and I think scientists are just about the most interesting people on Earth because of what they produce. These folks tinker away in obscurity for years and some of them just some create machines or theories or just insights that decide what the future will look like. Like painters, some of them get amply rewarded for what they do and others die before their work is recognised.
Even so, it takes an awful lot of drudge learning to get to the point where they can do magic with mathemati