Monday, April 29, 2013

How much math do we use at Work?

Shawn Cornally writes about this piece in the Atlantic.
So the survey results are out ... no one uses complex math in RealLifetm, so we probably shouldn't be requiring it of all the students in high school.
These numbers alone aren’t an open and shut case against teaching complex math to most high school students. But they do suggest that what we teach today has little relationship to the broad demands of the job market, and that we should at least be conscious of the possibility that we’re putting educational road blocks in front of students without a practical application for them.
I have a few observations about this rather simplistic interpretation, including a rebuttal of those who, like Shawn Cornally, feel that the problem lies in the way math was taught.
Cornally: There’s a case against CRAPPILY teaching complex math to high schoolers. The adverb there is really important. What that graph really means is that the way people were taught math disables them from ever actually using it.
Okay, let's start there. Cornally is a SBG guy through and through and that's fine. It works for him. But to assume that what works for him is the only possible way to teach ignores that lots of teachers are very good but never bothered with SBG. This graph says that large percentages of people never use complex math in their daily jobs ... it does not say that they can't or didn't learn it.

As for that graph:

22% use any of the advanced math skills.  It did not say WHICH of the skills were used, how often, or whether the job required it but they didn't know ... so they answered "No."

Let's look at a breakdown (and no snarky comments about the color choice ... whoops, too late.)

Of the 14% who used geometry, there is no indication of which of the geometry skills each person used. Let's arbitrarily designate the broad topics of geometry as A,B,C,D,E, and F. This person uses A,B,and C. That person uses D,E, and F. Both respond that they use geometry. A third person uses the ideas but not in any formal way; he's a mechanic who needs to keep certain parts perpendicular to other parts, or needs to maintain a 5° camber on that steering linkage and uses the "Diagonals of a rectangle are equal in length." Is this "Using Geometry"? Not many mechanics would think of it that way and most would say "No." What are the locations of the bolt hole in a seven bolt pattern with a diameter of 11" inches? If you can't say that but you can program the CNC milling machine, does that count? Despite all that, 30% of high-skill blue collar jobs use geometry.

Second, is enough "No" answers a valid argument for eliminating Geometry, anyway? I don't think so. Just because you don't formally use it doesn't mean you don't use it.

Third, I am of the firm belief that students will learn many things while in school but forget a lot of that after graduation. Isn't it's better to require Alg1, Geometry and Alg2 and have students forget the hardest aspects of those three courses (unless they specifically use them) than to only teach them basic math and have them forget the hardest aspects of that?

Fourth. I debate the idea that most kids can't do Alg1, Geometry, and Algebra2. Most students can learn something and many who thought they couldn't realize that they actually could. I have students constantly tell me that they "hate math but they like my class" and then, in the middle of something, "Oh, I get it!" Regardless of whether they ever use that specific skill again in a formal setting, they have learned something; usually the calculation methods get lost in time but the concepts remain and that's good enough for me. If they every truly "need" it, the re-learning is far easier than starting fresh.

Is the small likelihood of total mastery a reason to deny students the chance to learn something of each topic? Shouldn't all kids have the chance? I think they should because it's the small spark that gets ignited into a flame of interest in a field they didn't even know existed. If you refuse to let them stretch, they'll stagnate and wither.

Both is better than just one.
Fifth. "Here's How Little Math Americans Actually Use at Work" is the title. What about in life? Shouldn't ALL students be required to take probability and statistics, if only to understand how incredibly stupid the anti-vaccination movement is and how utterly wrong Wakefield's work was? Shouldn't all students be taught how to recognize the true risks behind everyday behaviors so they can judge their responses appropriately? Why should "Work" be the only measuring stick for value of an education? Isn't a knowledge of Dante and Shakespeare worth the effort?

Sixth. Who the hell says that THIS kid isn't going to be one of those who uses trig every day of his life? How do you know that all these kids are going to fail at advanced math without giving them a shot at it?

"These numbers alone aren’t an open and shut case against teaching complex math to most high school students." You're including Algebra Freaking One in "Complex Math"? 95% of kids can learn and understand algebra 1 by the end of 10th grade, geometry by the end of 11th. 100% of anything is stupid, but throwing out several perfectly reasonable courses because McDonalds cashiers and administrative assistants "don't use math" is idiotic.

If you applied this same reasoning to every discipline, you wouldn't have any education above the 8th grade.
  • Certainly poetry would be out. Milton? Chaucer? Odyssey? Short Stories? Poe? Wharton? Dickenson? Useless to most American jobs. Research papers? Gone. Creative writing? Most Americans don't read or write anything nowadays so we shouldn't teach either?
  • History? Forget about it. It's in the past. Nobody uses that in their jobs.
  • Science? Just as useless for most American jobs as Math is. I mean, really. Chemistry? Unless you're building a bomb or something and we can certainly do without that. Biology is another useless field.
  • Languages? Spanish is the only language you'll ever possibly need and not the kind they teach in schools. You'll swear words and a lot of macho mixed in with your Spanglish. Grammar is only an impediment.
  • Art? Music? Nobody cares about any of that except artists and musicians and none of them has a job that makes any money ...
  • Logic? We don't need anything other than than "Reductio ad absurdum", "Ad Hominem", and "Gun Control is a Slippery Slope to Banning All Guns and That Just Leads to a Police State."
Fortunately for all of us, the opinions of The Atlantic isn't relevant. Leave education decisions to the people who are qualified to make them. The Sociology professor at Northeastern who performed the study isn't at fault here; he reported what he found. It's Jordan Weissmann, an associate editor at The Atlantic, who came up with this piece of brilliance.


  1. Hi. I am a full-time actuary and part-time teacher. As an actuary, I use a lot of math. The non-actuaries I work with don't need to know exactly what I do, but they need to know that small changes in my work affect the bottom line answer that they care about. We talk about inflation rates and interest rates. We talk about "do-over's" - should I exclude that fluke claim from my analysis which will never happen again, or is it a good example of something that very well might happen again. The other observation I want to share is that the numeracy level of non-actuaries has increased significantly over the past 30 years - they need to understand a lot more today than they used to.

  2. "Certainly poetry would be out. Milton? Chaucer? Odyssey? Short Stories? Poe? Wharton? Dickenson? Useless to most American jobs. Research papers? Gone. Creative writing? Most Americans don't read or write anything nowadays so we shouldn't teach either?"

    Oh, they're out. They're out because they're not "useful" and aren't "engaging" enough to current high school students. Sitting in solitude and writing some poetry is being replaced with jacking your iPod earphones and contributing to the student blog because it's more "authentic" of an experience.

    And literary analysis? Oh, that's not authentic either. Let's write about our feelings.

    I could go on but I'm getting stabby.