Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Should Math Really Be A Required Subject?

I recently got an email:
And as a homeschooling father to a nine-year-old who puts two hours-plus of serious math instruction into each day I find myself in complete agreement with your approach to teaching the subject.  BUT...

I'm curious, do you find anything to agree with in Nicholson Baker's famous critical essay on Algebra II?  I do, and I make up for time that would be spent on the subject with an excess of number theory.  Any opinion greatly appreciated!  Best,
Oooh, boy.

Good evening,

I haven't read it, and it's behind a paywall, but what little I can see of or about it leads me to think "Just another whiny English Major and writer railing against algebra." "I don't DO math. Hee, hee."

I agree with the idea that students who have absolutely no interest in a mathematical major in college should probably be able to take a good statistics course instead of what alg2 has become under CCSS, but I hesitate to let all of them off the hook so quickly. I've found that most students can get SOMETHING out of my algebra class, and I hate to see them quitting on themselves after Geometry. I also believe that many kids vastly overestimate the difficulties they will have.

I think putting an elective as the third year and allowing kids to take alg2 as seniors is often a good compromise.
I guess for me the biggest complaint is this idea that every kid must take it and do well.  Why is A the only acceptable result? Why can't a kid struggle with it, get a D and move on? (And by D, I mean the kinda-gift, 'thanks for trying, but you really don't know this well enough for me to say Alg2 on a transcript') At least then he's been exposed to some things, has a partial idea of what logs are and how they apply to pH, and some pretty functions and so on.

The next time, if there is a next time, he'll do better. If there isn't a next time, well ... there's that small fraction he did understand.

If we look at a common complaint, "I'll never get this in a million years!" and tone down the exaggeration to "I'll never get this in one year!", it should become apparent that some kids may only get parts of alg2 this year. But they can always revisit it later in college or as the parent of student.

It does develop abstract thinking and the concepts are critical in most of the modern world. Yes, I understand that everyone thinks they "didn't use algebra in the RealWorld today" but they are wrong.  Algebra in its pure form never appears ... but the concepts, ideas, and behaviors show up everywhere.
Finally, I ask this one question .... If I said "Your son is too stupid to take algebra." "Your daughter is incapable of such abstract thought; have her take something more girly." "Your black child can't understand that." "Your daughter shouldn't fill her head with difficult math."  What would you do?

Well, I think you'd be calling for my head.

You know your kid best and even you don't think that you can predict his future; neither of you have any idea what he'll need or desire to do. You aren't really sure whether his difficulties are due to bad teaching or a lack of ability. You've read that girls learn their math-phobia from their mothers/ kindergarten teachers/ peers/ MyLittlePony and you do not want to limit her in any way before she's had a chance.
So why do we all have this mindset to "Let them admit defeat so early"? Me, I'd rather have them try again.

I tell kids "You have no idea what you'll do tomorrow. How can you predict what you'll be good at in ten years?  Algebra is difficult, but lots of things are difficult -- besides, you're 16 ... what else do you have in mind to take? What else can you do while the education is FREE? Do you want to put this off until college and pay $1200 per credit for it?

I was good at math and physics in HS, but I really hated history (BOOOOOORING). I got my degree in engineering and I spend hours during my vacations solving math puzzles .... but my passion is medieval reenactment. I can hold my own with the history department on anything older than 1600, pre-Renaissance. I have complete sets of armor that I wear in full-combat martial arts ... and the people I fight against are teaching me techniques they've researched from centuries old fechtbuch (in the original German). Last summer, we were camped around the fire, period canvas pavilions in a big circle, and we spent spent hours discussing the accuracy of the story of Bayeaux Tapestry as compared to and checked by contemporary sources.  Who would have predicted that?

Should every child take history? Yes. Math? Yes, including all the algebra they can stand, and then some. Art? Science? Languages? English? Yes.
No, I don't when you'll use it.
But I do know you'll do very little without it.

I've gotta get back to work. Thanks for reading.


  1. Yes, math is subject that sustain a lifetime. I admit back when I was in school, had a hate-hate-hate relationship with math but when the time came that I had to be on my own, I realized that math should have been one of the subjects I should have paid more attention. Layce of Mymathdone.com