Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Math Illiteracy

On his Uncertain Principles blog, Chad Orzel provides an interesting look at the problem of our culture's math illiteracy in The Innumeracy of Intellectuals. Professor Orzel's essential point is that people are generally ashamed of a lack of knowledge about art or culture, but can have a sense of pride about their lack of mathematical knowledge.

I don't think that everyone needs to love math any more than everyone needs to be an artist or a musician. On the other hand, here are three reasons I think everyone should master some key mathematical skills and concepts:
  1. Math matters: We are constantly bombarded by information and much of it requires some analysis. Sometimes, we need a solid grasp of logic, and at other times, we need to understand statistics or probability. Math helps us make sense of many situations.
  2. Math is helpful: The more math you know, the more ways you can see that it can be helpful as a way to solve real-world problems.
  3. Math is beautiful.
Point 1's implications: I think everyone needs some knowledge of algebra, probability, and statistics. That's it. No calculus. No trigonometry. Nothing too fancy. If you can't make sense of the data and statistics that are part of modern life, then you can't make good medical, financial, or political decisions.

Points 2's implications: Teachers need to find ways to get students using math that matters and doing math that is just better. Dan Meyer has a post Real Work v. Real World. Doing crappy work in a real-world context is probably worse than doing interesting work in a made-up context. Math students need to do more good work.

Point 3's implication: It just is. If you haven't seen beauty in math, then you are hanging out with the wrong math teachers (everyone hangs out with a bunch of math teachers, right?).

Anyway, math matters, it's helpful, and it's beautiful. We need to use these truths to draw more people in and keep them engaged with learning math.

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