I am, on a significant level, anti-math. This needs some explaining. I am an Excel wizard. I have spent the last couple of years in my free time in computer programming, which requires a certain proficiency with math. So I have to say that math in and of itself is not bad, per se (nod and a wink to South Park’s “Ungroundable” episode). My position regarding math has nothing to do with the inherent discipline itself, but rather people’s obsession with it.
In high school I was required to take two years of algebra and a year of geometry. In college I was required to pass a semester of college-level algebra. Okay, no sweat. I did it. I didn’t enjoy it, but I did it. I get that there are subjects I have to take that make me well-rounded and give me a strong foundation of skills that I will likely use in life. That is, after all, what a general education is supposed to do.
However, it’s all been largely useless. The procedural math that algebra and geometry classes teach frequently is useless. There is little in the way of applicability to logarithms, cosines, factoring, and quadratic equations to everyday life. I have forgotten nearly all of the math education I had. Like any skill, it stays in memory the more it’s used. I don’t have a need for math in a daily life.
Math education, too, has shifted into something that is unnecessary, and will likely be among these forgotten skills and equations. The education focuses more on the steps needed to solve a given equation. The procedure trumps all. I have taught in classrooms in the math department, and I see the classes end where a computer program emulates a calculator because instructors demonstrate how to solve the problem on the calculator.
What good is this? Rote memorization does not make for problem solving skills. Being able to look at a problem and deduce a method to solve it is problem solving. Parroting the steps and drilling it into a group of students only insures that they will be able to follow those steps, but not apply critical thinking skills to problem solving. They haven’t learned any critical skills. They learned how to follow steps.
If math is to be truly relevant, it needs to be walked back into a method of solving problems, of exploration and deducing relationships between not only numbers but reality. The great mathematicians created the equations to solve specific problems they encountered, and the only way to solve those problems was by math.
What good is it to tell someone the Pythagorean Theorem or pi? Why isn’t it better to help students understand the relationships? Let them measure the circumference and diameters of circles and discover the constant relationship between them that is pi. Let them question and understand how the sides of the triangle relate.
Only when this is done will the math scores increase, and math will truly be relevant in modern education. We need more problem solvers and thinkers. Fewer parrots.