The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Why is Mathematics not Considered a Part of Our Lives?

on May 18, 2017

Going through the most recent edition of Education Week I was drawn to an article that argued for the importance of math as well as reading in children’s homes. I write about that issue today because I agree basically, but I also see problems with making math a part of students’ lives.

In the elementary grades I did well in math but had no personal enthusiasm for it. In high school I took the three courses required: Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, but skipped Calculus. I didn’t even know what that title meant, and I was drawn instead to electives in literature and the arts. As a college freshman I took the one required math course, which I can no longer name or remember much about. I think the emphasis was on statistics.

Yet, in both my professional and personal life math has been a significant element. As a teacher I had to use math in tracking student attendance and calculating grades. I also had to figure out how to spend the money allotted to my classroom. Later, as a principal, I again had several calculations and spending decisions to make. I had to set times for music, art, and physical education, determine class sizes, and set teacher schedules. At the same time I was a wife and mother who had to make my spending fit the family income and set aside some funds for future needs.

In the ED Week article there is a strong argument for the importance of math learning for young children. First, the writer asserts that learning about numbers early in life helps students in their math classes, and, second, that such learning is a significant factor in ours personal lives from beginning to end.

The problem, as the writer sees it, is that most parents do not value mathematics or spend much time introducing it to their young children. In a survey of more than 2,500 parents both math and science were ranked lower in importance than reading. In addition, a large number of parents agreed with the statement “Skills in math are mostly useful for those that have careers related to math, so average Americans do not have much need for math skills.” As the result of such beliefs and the failure of parents to introduce math to their children, most students later see no connection between what is taught in math classes and their personal needs. Like me, they comply with their teachers’ requests and prepare for classroom tests, but never think of math as a part of their lives

Where the writer of this article and I part ways is on the role of math teachers. She does not mention that they have an obligation to make the connection between math skills and every day life, and most teachers seem to feel the same way. What I remember, and still see in math classrooms, are methods and facts taught for their own sake without any indication of their value outside of school. For example, a classroom exercise or homework assignment is likely to be a work sheet full of problems to be solved without any hint about their real world usefulness. Even when math problems are presented in written form describing a realistic situation, they rarely connect to students’ needs or interests, or require them to work things out physically. For example, students may be given distance and time problems on a worksheet, but never asked to actually try out two routes to a place near their homes, measure the distances, and compare the times consumed. They may also be given problems about the costs of items people typically purchase, but are rarely asked to predict how much money they will need to buy the things they want and figure out how they can economize.

I could name many other real life situations appropriate for students of different ages to work on as homework or classroom exercises that I have never read about or witnessed. If all math classes included such assignments, students and their parents might have a greater appreciation of mathematics as an important skill and its significance in their lives .

One response to “Why is Mathematics not Considered a Part of Our Lives?

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    Great points, Joanne. As a mathematician (MS-Applied Math) I’ve been particularly interested in the writing of Andrew Hacker who advocates for a shift away from Algebra as our core focus an into what he calls “Adult Arithmetic” – the math we really use as part of life. In fact, he tells stories of taking engineering students into his Adult Arithmetic classes and watching them struggle with the topic despite all their calculus.

    It seems his interest in in whether we can look at basic data and have a sense of what it means. Whether we can be confronted with a real situation and choose how to play with numbers to sort it out. And whether we can do basic interpretation of data from polls and research (like medical research).

    Algebra and I got along quite well – and I loved integral calculus. At the same time, I use math extensively in my business work – and never use calculus and only rarely use the simplest of algebra.

    Here’s a link to his book.


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