I grew up aware of two realities in regards to mathematics. Many people do not like mathematics, and many people do not believe that they are good at mathematics. This hasn’t changed since I became a math professor. In fact, any mention of my occupation is usually quickly met with a phrase like, “I’m not a math person.” Like when a castle pulls up its drawbridge at the first sight of a rebel army, I understand these responses to be panicked attempts to keep any math conversations at bay.
In recent years, I have encountered a new reality. Many people are now questioning the value of mathematics education. To be clear, these people are not questioning the value of some minimum level of mathematics for all people, perhaps including some basic arithmetic. Also, no one is challenging that advanced mathematics is important for some people, with engineers often serving as the go-to example. The question is why we require so much math for everyone. Other ways to phrase this question might be, “How much mathematics does everyone need?” or “What is the value of learning topics like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, or calculus?”
I believe that before we can discuss the value of mathematics, we have to understand what mathematics is. In all seriousness, I’m not sure many people fully comprehend. The reason is that our way of teaching mathematics has confused them. The math education I received (at least through middle school) was overflowing with dull calculations and dry symbolic manipulations (and I think I was fortunate enough to have some of the better math teachers).
When most people think math, they think addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Some might think about algebraic equations such as 2x+3=9 and the algorithms they memorized to solve such a problem.
But this is not mathematics. Arithmetic and algebra are to mathematics what spelling and grammar are to creative writing. They are a necessary foundation but not the essence.
We certainly teach spelling and grammar quite a bit in any curriculum. The difference in how we teach writing and math is that we encourage or require that students start writing creatively at a very young age. A second grader might write a story about taking rides on the purple unicorn that lives behind the shed in her backyard. We don’t typically encourage mathematical creativity.
As a result, it’s no surprise that many people do not like math. How many people would want to write poetry or creative fiction if they thought the activities closely resembled a spelling test?
This misunderstanding of mathematics is also fueling the underestimation of math’s value. The greatest value is found when one has the ability to apply mathematical creativity to problem solving. Let’s teach this.
This website investigates the questions of “What is math?” and “Why should we learn it?” In addition, since many teachers are implementing good strategies for math education, I will be looking for ways to share their excellent work and any other resources that might help teachers, parents and students learn and love math. In other words, we’ll attempt to answer, “How should we teach it?”