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 ourkids (about maths)- A bunch of opinions by David C, Aug 2011

2. 1.You need to be good atmaths to get through life 3. Actually no. Most people never use algebra after they leave school. Thatincludes all the skills based on algebra, such as calculus, trigonometry,probability theory, complex numbers and matrices. Most people never needto interpret graphs, measure areas and volumes, calculate or interpretstatistics or bisect an angle. The trouble is that some of us a very smallpercentage do. And of those who do use these abstract skills, each ofthem uses it sparingly and probably uses just one or two of those skills andnot the whole menagerie. 4. The only maths you really, really, really need is the art of counting.Anything more sophisticated than that can be handed over to other peopleto do for you: accountants, social workers, probation officers, bankers andthe like. Counting is quite likely to be the only kind of maths you arerequired by circumstances to do frequently and quickly. After all, youdfeel pretty silly if you had to ask a shop assistant to put eight apples into abag for you. 5. Of course, if you want to manage your affairs personally, youll need to beable to add, subtract, multiply (at least just a little bit) and just maybedivide. These form about the first half of arithmetic the art of crunchingnumbers. The other half is fractions (which youll never need except for anunderstanding of halves and quarters), decimal numbers (which youllnever need unless you count money or millimetres) and percentages (whichyoull never need unless you want to invest).Now, managing your own affairs is only an option. Some people prefer tomarry someone who can manage their affairs for them, or go on a benefit inwhich case someone else does the work for them. 6. So far Ive been talking a little tongue-in-cheek, but from here on Imserious. Most people learn the higher mathematical skills at high school,understand them to varying degrees and then promptly forget them whenthey leave school, only to confront them again twenty years later whentheir children go to high school. And when each generation who goesthrough this process asks the generation that came before, Why do I needto learn this stuff?, we have no honest answers. We shake our heads andsay 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 ideawas this? And why cant we stop doing it? 7. The answer may be that underneath all our doubts about the utility ofmaths, we have in our hearts a secret desire to see our kids do better thanus. No-one knows which of our kids will be amongst the one percent ofalgebra-learners will go on to be algebra-users at university, and so wehappily 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 marchinto an algebra class after our kids have had a year-long taste of it and sayShes tried it, doesnt like it, cant understand it, and wants to stop. That,basically is what we need to be able to do. 8. But then if we allow that kind of thing, we have to be absolutely certainthat our decision to quit algebra at an early stage is the right one. Im partof a cohort of kids from the 1970s who didnt particularly like algebra atschool but didnt dare to say so out loud, and so knuckled down and learntit 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 lotof dreary practice in the early days to become good at it, and you never seethe point of all that dreary learning until youve mastered a fair bit of it. 9. Now as an adult who has studied algebra for many years, I can use it toplay around with ideas. I can design a spaceship with it and fly to the Moonon a computer program Ive designed myself. What I find particularlyremarkable 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 atime when nobodyd even thought of putting computers into the home. Soalthough I can understand why I like algebra, I cant fathom why myteachers liked it. 10. 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 ourhobbies. 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 rareas hens teeth, but just imagine the kinds of things they must be doing: 3Dgraphics for Hollywood movies? Or maybe writing the code that enables acomputer to do 3D graphics. Or maybe designing a computer that can runthe code for 3D graphics. Or maybe designing a flight simulator that usesthat 3D graphics to teach pilots how to fly. Or maybe its a simulator forputting men on the Moon. Or maybe its the formulae used to land a roboton Mars. Or maybe . Do I need to go on? Its all fantastic, world-changing work. 11. We have to stop telling our kids that maths is necessary. Instead we have topresent it as an option that for some will be fun and possibly useful. Todo that, we have to stop believing ourselves that algebra is somehownecessary for our kids. We have to make dropping out of a high schoolmaths 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 andnobody calls them stupid.To balance all that, we have to make the learning of algebra a veryattractive option so that those who are at least a little curious about it willtry it. And from there, we - parents, teachers and students alike - will beable to identify those who really enjoy it and who want to go on to learn thedeeper levels of the subject. 12. Im using the word enjoy in place of the word capable because I believethat in most cases (if not all cases) the one precedes the other. If you enjoyhigher maths, it will give you the stamina to go on to get good at it, in thesame way that a student who enjoys playing chopsticks on the piano willgo on to learn trickier stuff.Believe it or not, kids who enjoy algebra actually exist. Theyre very rareand their experience of algebra is often hampered by the need to sitamongst kids who hate it. But imagine if we could find these kids early inlife and focus our teaching effort on them. Imagine where their lives couldgo. And imagine how much happier their teachers would be. 13. To make algebra an attractive option, we have to bring in people fromindustry who use it as part of their jobs, who can really show kids thepower that algebra provides in certain very specialised careers.Finally, we need to associate algebra very conspicuously with theprofessions it serves: medicine, engineering, astronomy and economics (toname a few). Either we start teaching these professional courses a littleearlier 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 allthose professional courses depend. It would NOT be seen as the last relic ofa dying brigade of subjects forced onto teenagers in less enlightened times,these being Latin, French, rhetoric, philosophy and the religious practicesof the day. 14. 2.Maths will get you a good job 15. Nope. To see clear evidence for that, you only have to look at me and whatI do. Im a maths teacher and I get peanuts compared to the rich folks incareers that never use more than the basic skill of counting.I met a bank CEO once who hired me to teach his daughter maths becausehe described himself as no good with numbers. Professional musicians,entertainers, tour guides, sports coaches, restaurateurs, cmon, you dontneed 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. Theyentertain people. People seek them out. That does not happen to scientistsvery often. Scientists spend a lot of time in solitude because thats wherethey need to be to fit an equation to a chunk of data. 16. Consider the aeroplane test:Who would you rather sit next to for a ten-hour flight: a musician, amagician, a pro sportsman, an actor or a maths teacher? I dont supposemany mathematicians get invited to cocktail parties except for thoseorganised by other mathematicians, and nobody goes to these anywaybecause even mathematicians cant stand the company of mathematicians!Have you heard all the jokes about scientists on aeroplanes? A passengersits next to a cosmologist and starts asking questions about skin-careproducts. The cosmologist says, No no, I do astronomy. So the passengerthen asks for advice on her horoscope and the astronomer says No, no, Ima kind of physicist. So the passenger then starts talking about her backpain and wants to know what she should do about it. Now quiteexasperated, the physicist says No, no, Im a scientist, after which thepassenger turns away and starts to read the newspaper. 17. I laugh at that too. Yet Ive seen the TED talks online and I think scientistsare just about the most interesting people on Earth because of what theyproduce. These folks tinker away in obscurity for years and some of them just some create machines or theories or just insights that decide what thefuture will look like. Like painters, some of them get amply rewarded forwhat 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 wherethey can do magic with mathematical modeling. And even while theyre atthe pinnacle of their careers, theyre still spending an awful lot of timelooking at mathematical procedures that 99 percent of the people in theirwhanau do not understand or even want to discuss at the dinner table.Thats the nature