May 06, 2016

math on a chalkboard

Math on a chalkboard. Credit: Clayton Shonkwiler / Flickr Creative Commons

When was the last time you used the quadratic formula? Or solved for “x”? Or had to know what sohcahtoa means?

Unless you work in a small set of specialized jobs, or teach high school math… it’s probably been a while.

But… you likely still learned algebra, geometry, and trig. And that’s an issue, according to Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell and author of The Joy of X.

“A lot of people, we know, live perfectly happy, productive lives, and don’t know much about math beyond arithmetic,” Strogatz says. “And that’s just a fact. And I feel like my profession doesn’t want to admit that. We’re afraid to say that the honest truth is you don’t need much math.”

In fact, Strogatz believes that the entire way we approach math instruction is misguided.

There’s the math everyone is taught, including arithmetic, fractions, and multiplication. And then there’s math that everyone should know: how to evaluate a mortgage, how to understand probability, how to calculate compound interest.

But rarely are those things part of a standard curriculum.

High school math, Strogatz notes, is organized the way it is because of the space race against the Soviets. The courses are literally “meant for rocket engineers in the 50s.”

But by forcing so many students to take classes like trigonometry, calculus, and algebra, Strogatz says we are forgetting about not just the utility but also the beauty of math.

He argues that there should be “a course that was the counterpart to introduction to world music or introduction to psychology.” Something that introduces people to the wonder of math as a way of looking at the world. And he wants all math education to be fun. It should be slowed down, he says, and should include more logic puzzles and interesting, engaging problems to solve.

“We tend to teach math nowadays as a kind of pouring liquid into a funnel, the funnel being the kid’s head. And that is not how math is either done or loved.”

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