Thursday, December 6, 2012

2 + 2 = 5

I have no mathy pictures, so here is a lobster instead
A segment on the news recently disturbed me. It was about a new way to teach math in elementary schools (I’ve become interested in these stories as my daughter is now in the world). The new way is a creative approach where there are no wrong methods, and they may also have reported that there are no wrong answers - I’m really hoping I heard the last part wrong. There may be more to the story than the news presented (as is often the case), however, if it is this way, I’m quite worried about our mathematical future.

I’m all for creative approaches, however, in math there are methods that will take you to the answer quickly. One of the nicest things about basic math is that there are right answers to be found and, they can be verified as correct. Creative methods may get the right answer eventually but are not necessarily effective tools for everyday math. It may be dull to memorize mathematical basics - never the less, one needs to get the basics down. No one ever suggests that we take a creative approach to learning how to read. We are expected to learn the grammar rules necessary to understand written text - so why is math different?

Technology takes away the necessity to do math in some circumstances, but technology doesn’t always work. Understanding some math is necessary - how would you determine if you can afford something? How about telling if you tax return is reasonable? Did you get the right amount of change back on a purchase? Or when is a sale at a store actually a good deal? Recently, I found a man looking at peanut butter in the grocery store trying to determine if it was a better deal to get a smaller jar on sale or a larger one - in this case the smaller jar was the better deal (he seemed relieved when I told him).

A lot of people have trouble with math, but I wonder if this is due to our society’s portrayal of math as scary. Math isn’t scary, it’s simply a set of rules to manipulate numbers. Since, people’s brains work slightly differently making picking up math harder for some, if someone is struggling to learn a mathy technique help should be available to coach them towards the right answer.

I’m biased about math because I use it all the time and am comfortable with it. Although, I’m not very good at doing math in my head but, I’ve practiced tricks allowing me to do everyday computations. With a pen and paper I can work out most things - calculators make it even easier. At higher level university courses, math becomes more abstract and harder to intuitively grasp. One needs to use this type of math regularly, or be mathematically gifted (which isn’t me), to apply it. As a scientist, I understand the math that describes my field but the pure abstract math is often baffling to me as I haven’t spent time working with it.

Picture is from here

1 comment:

  1. I agree -- the nice thing about math is it is right or wrong (at least until you hit the weird abstract stuff) and has logical rules.
    I would argue the point about grammar rules being rigorously taught, however, as I fear that is in even a worse state than math. Though grammar's rules are way harder and have many more exceptions than basic math rules.